A couple weeks ago, my wife came to me and asked, “Do you want to go to Oregon?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. Who wouldn’t want to go? Wandering around the Cascades, wayfaring stony coastlines, hiking the snowy rim of a long-extinct volcano. But that is not what Angela had in mind. Nearly a year ago, Angela’s pregnant daughter, my step-daughter, loaded up a Penske with her new husband, a pit bull/bonkers hybrid and a puppy Rottweiler, two babies (ages 1 and 2-3 months), and all the belongings a young, cash-strapped newlyweds had. That was a year ago. Now, the new baby has entered the world and there were complications. So Angela dispatched me like a nursemaid to help with brand-new baby Alexander’s older brothers.
Now, I don’t want to make any sweeping declarations about babies, and I should admit my own inadequacies to the subject: I adopted my son when he was three years old, and Angela’s children were teenagers when I mantled the title: step-father. Changing diapers, feedings, distinguishing one cry from another cry, well, to say my baby skills are rusty is a lie. I have no baby skills. With all that said, however, I know this about babies: if you think there is going to be a moment in the day for quiet reflection, a sense of mindfulness to allow God’s good world to stamp tranquility onto your soul, you don’t know anything about three babies in a two-bedroom apartment either. (I should add one more element here to help you have a better picture. Remember the puppy Rottweiler and the pit bull? Well, the pit bull has had a litter of puppies, and the Rottweiler is the size of a pygmy horse. And they all live in this two-bedroom apartment that has the look and feel of what I imagine to be a future puppy mill. Start praying now.)
For days I was immersed in crying, grouchiness, giggles, tickle parties, doggie kisses, sleep deprived parents, dog crabbiness, and a children’s book about a zoo keeper’s wife that sent the two-year-old into hysteric. And if I didn’t immediately start the book over again, tantrums tipping the Fujita scale into Oz-like mythology churned the finger of God through the apartment. God heard my cry of dereliction and uncomplicated baby Alexander’s entrance into this world. That was good news for baby and mother and father for obvious reasons. But for me it was good news because it freed up father and mother to deal with the two other jibber-jabbering babies. My obligations shifted to running errands and doing more grandfather like duties, such as paying for dinner. And thank God for all those errands. The squeals of baby and toddler. The noise. Oh my God, the noise. If the dogs barked again or if the shrill howl of another nap-needing baby… It was going to kill me.
Eventually my week neared its end and I was free to enjoy the two days I had set aside for rehabilitation. I spent one day driving to Crater Lake. The drive itself was at least three hours through Willamette National Forest or Umpqua National Forest or Deschutes National Forest. With so many national forest around, it was difficult to know where one stopped and the other began.
The rows and rows, the countless branchy columns, those breathless Douglas firs rose out of the mountain and respired a misty blanket like a man slowly puffing a Montecristo. I stopped at nearly every pull off or scenic overlook. The air became Christmas and the scope of the mural was lightheaded with vertigo and reverence. Finally, after pausing to photograph snow-capped mountains and rainstorms stirring through a valley, I arrived at Crater Lake National Park. As I went higher and higher, patches of snow accreted until the earth, foisted by a frostbite, seemed a pitiable creature, like a gargoyle chiseled out of cut stone. By the time I reached the mountain’s peak, it was difficult to determine how much snow covered the ground. In some spots it seemed at least a foot deep, while along the roads and cleared off sidewalks, the snow was stacked twice my height and higher. I thought of the mountain itself, buried underneath the gangrene inflicting blanket. It was cruel, this spring-immune snow.
I walked around snapping photos, enjoying the chatter of the other tourist and variety of languages. Then I came across a sight that brought about an immediate halt. A lodge in the distance, surrounded by snow. The serrated crater rim anchored the lodge with an enchanting background.
I have been here before, I thought. This was such a familiar sight it was impossible to think otherwise. That wasn’t right, exactly. The sight wasn’t just familiar. It was exact. But that was impossible. I had only been to Oregon once before, and on that trip I was by the coast the entire length of the tour. It was impossible. But the longer I gazed at the view, I knew beyond certainty that I had stood at this very spot. I felt like I was at a class reunion looking into a face I absolutely knew, a face I once knew intimately, yet unable to recall a name. So transfixed by the sight, I forgot to snap a photograph.
I wanted so badly for this view to mean something. Maybe it was proof of a previous life, I thought. Or maybe the view was running up against a suppressed memory, which, if tugged at long enough, would unravel a hidden biography. Perhaps I had been on top of another volcano, with a lake-filled caldera and a lodge surrounded by snow; but that seemed unlikely. Or maybe I had seen the view before in a dream or vision or some creative work of fiction proving the independence and intelligence of my unreliable muse.
Then I knew. God was preparing to speak. I braced myself for God’s voice. I expected something audible, a voice handing down stone tablets. And if not a booming voice from the heavens, a life-altering sense of purpose, the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary. I braced myself for a miracle, God’s hand brushing aside my cornucopia of myopia. Standing in a patch of snow, prophesy will come to me, I thought, as it did Ezekiel with storms and clouds, flashing fires and four quixotic creatures. I opened myself to God’s spirit.
So spiritually ambitious was I that I had given myself over to just this sort of grandeur and self-importance. For weeks or months, maybe my entire life, I had been looking for God. But God doesn’t want to be found like a grandfather playing hide-n-seek with a grandchild. God wants to be revealed. Like a screaming man bursting through a door or a telephone call in the middle of the night, God is unexpected, startling, numinous. Standing expectantly on the mountain, God ditched me. It came a snowfall. The view was ruined. I left the mountain to drive back down into the valley of my resuscitated acedia.
Later that night, in my hotel room, I discovered why the sight was so familiar. Angela had sent me a text message a few moments earlier, so I dug my phone out of the sheet folds. And there it was. The lodge in the snow. It was nothing more than the background image that came with my telephone. The sight meant nothing. Nothing more than the coincidence of standing in the spot where a picture was taken and loaded on untold number of cellular phones. I had made the view something other than what it was, a lodge in the snow, which reduced all my desires to something or someone I’m not. The God I wanted in that moment was a God of winsome epiphanies.
We’ve all heard a sermon or read a book or felt a prayer so powerfully delivered that its meaning and movement exceeded the spiritual dexterity of the author. When I was in seminary, I attended a small church where the pastor, despite his absolute best efforts, could not deliver coherent sermon. For months in a row, one sermon after another and another, I left church with absolutely no idea what he had to say. In fact, I was pretty well convinced he simple couldn’t organize his thoughts well enough to say anything intelligible. But then, every so often, maybe a couple times a year, the sermon was so elegant, so well put together, I could feel the imagination and spiritual authority of the sermon’s author.
After years of preaching myself, I came to learn the inspired sermon, the sort of sermon that comes to the preacher rather than out of the preacher, is a freakish aberrance explained only by God’s Spirit. This sort of spiritual emergence is rare. Look no further than the introduction of the prophetic text. The word of the Lord is announced to have come to Micah or Zechariah and many other prophets. If this sort of coming was a weekly experience, the narrator might have opened with something like, “Yet again, _____ heard from God.” Instead, we are left with the impression that this sort of spiritual encounter is scarce, maybe even a once in a lifetime rendezvous.
When an entire season of crops fail, people go hungry and savor each morsel like manna in a wilderness. This is the human condition. We are deprived, spiritually injured. The dearth of God is the aftertaste skulking from that long-ago nibble. When we are hungry for God, each revelation is relished more than all other desires added together.
Standing on the mountain, I was impatient with God. I mean, I literally drove to the top of a snow-covered mountain to have a mountain-top experience. I had eaten snow and expected to be satiated. Just like Satan trying to tempt Jesus to force the hand of God, I was putting God to the test when I manipulated coincidence for the sake of the sacred. I’m not suggesting that we forego spiritual retreats or meditation time. By all means, leave the light on. I think what I’m getting around to is this: don’t let what you want to be true to overwhelm you so much that castles trolley by with the passing clouds. We all know folks of this sort of spiritual persuasion: the person in bible study who always wants to testify, the perpetually inspired poet, the one who has it all figured out, the preacher moved to tears by his own sermon, the endlessly positive person who has overlooked the fact that an entire book in the bible is called Lamentations. This sort of faith is really no different than those wishful thinking horoscope connoisseurs. It cheapens revelation to superstition and tidy niceties.
The gorgeous views of the valley didn’t need me to make them gorgeous. The snow-capped volcano didn’t need me to make it unbelievable. And God, why would God need me? I’m grateful for God’s on again and off again appearances. I am grateful that God doesn’t need me. I’m satisfied with waiting and hoping. God is too much. Let’s keep the burning bushes to a minimum.
A common phrase on tombstones is, “God’s finger touched him, and he slept.” That’s about right. Too much God will kill you.
So, yeah, go look for God. Climb mountains or sail the seas, if you like. Leave the light on. God might show up. But you might just find God washing laundry or fixing a bottle or wondering how they are going to pay the rent next month. See how much God you can handle before you escape to a vacated Olympus.
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