As I write this, I’m traveling eastward. The mountains are at my back. There’s always something that feels wrong on a visceral level about turning away from them, about heading back to Kansas. They are cathedral to me, sanctuary, a place I have gone to find God so many times. As we were preparing to leave my sister’s house this morning, I told my dad that some day God is going to let me live in Colorado. I also told him that I realized that was just kind of like saying that some day God is going to let me live in heaven, because … well … Colorado.
I was riding somewhere with my nephew and his girlfriend a couple of days ago. We were driving west, toward the Rockies, as the sun was preparing to set behind them. We came over a ridge, and there they were. The view made my breath catch. I leaned forward from the back seat and slowly turned my head to take in the glorious eastern face of the range that stretched as far north and south as I could see. I drank it in with intentionality, aware of the sacredness of the ground beneath me. After several long moments, I was gently shaken from my reverie by the conspicuous lack of reciprocal awe from my vehicle mates.
“You guys don’t even see them anymore, do you?,” I asked. “The mountains.”
My nephew barked a laugh and said “Nope!” His girlfriend explained that they primarily served as navigational guides for Coloradans.
As we were driving north toward I-70 this morning, they were about the clearest I’ve ever seen them. Fresh snow on distant peaks outlined the stark silhouettes of the foothills. The solidity, the permanence, the predictable constancy reached out to me, comforted me. I soaked it in again, knowing I was getting ready to make that right turn and drive nine hours. I said it almost to myself, perhaps to convince me. “I wouldn’t take this for granted. It would not become common place to me. Not even if I lived here.”
I lived on the side of a mountain in Ecuador for almost five years. Pichincha tops out more than 1,200 feet higher than the highest peak in Colorado, and that was just the mountain in my back yard. The highest point in Ecuador (Chimborazo, which translates from an indigenous tongue as “The Ice Throne of God”) beats Colorado’s Mt. Elbert by more than 6,000 feet. The Andes make the Rockies look like speed bumps. Sure, I remember plenty of requests for directions that started out with the question “Is the mountain on your left or your right?” But I also remember whispered prayers ripped from my soul almost weekly when a thunderstorm would roll over the peak, or that last beam of the waning sun would blaze into your eye as it dropped behind they volcano’s ever-present mass … “My God! I live here!”
For a guy for whom nature virtually shouts of glory and mystery, Ecuador was a soul-bending place to live. Our apartment was at 9,300 feet. We were five hours from the beach on one side of the country and five hours from the Amazon basin on the other. I’ve seen condors circle me at the top of a foothill in the highlands. I’ve seen crater lakes with unfathomable depths of alien blue water. I’ve eaten weird rodents five-hour canoe rides deep in the jungle. And I’ve watched from the beach many, many times as the sun fell dying into the Pacific in fiery struggles of purple, orange, and red. Ecuador was glorious … and it was the hardest place I’ve ever lived.
My marriage did most of its dying there. I have many close friends from Quito, but I was more betrayed and wounded at the hands of believers there than anywhere I’ve ever been. People who claimed the name of Christ were hateful and nasty to me (and I was hateful and nasty right back.) The missionary community there was a cold, distant, and unforgiving place for a guy who fought hard to avoid plastic shininess. I was lonely. I was depressed. I was shattered, and left alone to cobble together the pieces of who I would be after the smoke cleared and the ashes settled.
I don’t say these things here to get you to sympathize, to feel sorry for me. I say them to illustrate a point. Two points really, I guess. My experience with the Rockies this weekend has reminded me of two truths:
I miss things all the time.
My nephew, bless his heart, doesn’t really feel the awe of the mountains because he was born and raised in their shadow. He’s 17 now, and they have become fixtures for him. They are for him what the rolling, deciduous forests of the Ozarks, the fertile, patchwork plains of the bread basket, and the stark, undulating minimalism of the Flint Hills are for me. They are blind spots, gaping holes in our vision where we are numbed to glory. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously put it this way:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes”
The X-Files’ Agent Scully said it perhaps even more poignantly. Though known for her skepticism, she said that the idea didn’t so much bother her that God might not be speaking. What made her afraid, she said, was the possibility that God is speaking, and that no one’s listening.
I need to listen harder. I need to see.
I was made to miss things.
Even before the fall, even before the brokenness that mars my spiritual complexion, I was made for more than this. I was created for a purpose that is frustrated and short-circuited at my every turn. There is no amount of beauty, no depth of intimacy, nor even any power of real, Divine connection that will complete me. Not here. Not in the tension between the already and the not yet.
C.S. Lewis (of course) says it better and more succinctly when he says “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
The holes in my heart, the vacancy and emptiness I feel, the deep hunger that haunts me will not be met by the ideal relationship. I will not find ultimate satisfaction in the perfect job that will afford me comfort and security. I will never rest my head carefree at night because of the beauty I’ve seen and experienced. (And here’s the controversial part.) Not even any amount of time in prayer, or number of verses memorized, nor long walks with God in the evening, nor right theology, or attending the right kind of church the right number of times a month … none of it will satisfy me.
Only Jesus will, and that face to face. We were created for a relationship that will one day be consummated. Until then, even places like Colorado and Ecuador will break your heart.