In 1990 I spent the summer running children’s programs for some ranching communities in central Montana. When I had asked to be assigned to Montana, images had arisen in my mind of tall white-peaked pinnacles of stone, their knees and feet carpeted with stately forests and icy cold torrents of frothing water weaving their winding ways between them.
Instead, I was assigned to the exact middle of the state, a dry and dusty plain sparsely populated by pronghorns, prairie dogs, sheep and tumbleweeds. The flat terrain stretched out on every side of me like an endless tablecloth with purple shadows of mountains only peeking tauntingly at me from over the edge of the distant horizon.
Even for those who always see their glasses as half full, the thrill of prairie dogs and tumbleweeds fades pretty fast. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I had had enough of only hearing about the mountains and I wanted more than to simply see pictures of one towering majestically over lakes the color of pure sapphires. I wanted to instead ascend the mountain’s summit and touch its face, so that I would know from personal experience its glory.
Given the demands on my time, I had given up hope of such an opportunity being presented to me. But finally, after six or seven weeks, the opportunity WAS presented. Faced unexpectedly with a free weekend, a few colleagues and I loaded our backpacks and headed out to the Beartooth Mountains in the mid-western part of Montana, in spite of the fact that I was still recovering from a shocking cold into which I had worked myself.
Our trek was a 35 mile hike onto a ridge of mountain peaks that overlooked a wide lake at the foot of its northwestern face. After we had parted company with our car we began our trek up a twisting trail marked every quarter mile or so with small, crude signs roughly nailed to trees along the way. It was a great climb, but with my fits of coughing and sneezing, we knew that the only wildlife we’d possibly see were wolves that might have confused my hacking with the sounds made by an ailing moose.
Still, even the wolves kept their distance (maybe I sounded as yucky to them as I was feeling) and our trip was mostly uneventful. The beauty of the hike, my cold aside, was staggering. The sun shone with its glory undimmed and each step brought us closer to it. The pine smell was lost on my miserable sinuses, of course, but the wild evergreen trees stood faithfully on either side of the pass arching over our heads with stoic solemnity that made me appreciate ever more deeply their tribute to God’s creation.
We passed above the tree line, made our way until we reached some of the year-round snow that adorned the mountain peak and looked out over the flat lands to the east. Far below me I could see the unremarkable terrain stretch out until another string of mountains rose again from the earth as a brown dust devil swirled quietly below us in the empty plain. A thrill of being caught up in the mountain’s majesty gripped me and I found myself singing a song of praise to God.
That night we found a large, sheltered hollow in which a grove of pine trees had managed to take root and thrive. We made camp and enjoyed both companionship amongst ourselves and a sweet fellowship with the stars that seemed to be near enough to listen in on our conversation.
But later that night, I was awakened by a titanic boom as a peal of thunder blasted our little dell with an explosion of noise. My eyes were momentarily blinded by the brilliant flash of the accompanying lightning. Suddenly, I found myself praying furiously, imagining that each pole holding up my tent was a miniature lightning rod. The wind whipped my little tent about like it was an errant kite and the rain, crashing down around it like tiny tidal waves, soon penetrated my “water-proof” tent, soaking me to the bone. When it finally turned to sleet, I didn’t mind in the least: at least it couldn’t get in the tent as easily. When the storm passed on only an hour later, the full moon reemerged and the stars were again my friends.
In the days that followed that hike, I realized how much it was like our relationship with God. We sing, teach, pray and talk about encounters with God. But encounters with God don’t always turn out the way we imagine they will. In fact, the longer we walk with Him, seeking Him with “all our hearts” (see Jeremiah 29:13), the more unpredictable we’ll find Him. At times, He shelters us in small valleys of comfort and protection. Sometimes, He sparks in us wonder at either His power or His love. Occasionally, we are possessed with joy as we glimpse His majesty and know that, somehow, He has chosen to love us. And yet… at other times, He thunders into our lives with His holy voice and we are dumb-founded by a sense of His omnipotence and holiness. How rich and wonderful then is our God Who made the heavens and the earth!
“May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in His works – He Who looks at the earth, and it trembles, Who touches the mountains, and they smoke. I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 104:31-33).