how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth

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One Sunday a few months ago I slipped in late to the back of church. Home just one day from five weeks in the woods, I felt like a stranger in this life, this city, these clothes. I didn’t even have the strength to sing for most of the service; just enough to stand and let the healing waves of the body wash over me like rain. To hear their voices lift high words that have been sung by the people of God for centuries…

Laudate omnes gentes, Laudate Dominum
Sing praises all ye people, sing praises to the Lord

In those words they proclaimed for me what I could not yet feel, reeling in communal loss: that this too was the body, and I must enter back into it again. But those voices also called me to responsibility, to remember why we gather. It was exactly in the grief of that moment, regardless of who knew or understood it, that I needed to be there, and I needed to stand with them, and I needed to praise.

It has been a season of a freshly stirred longing for eternity. And when that happens, most often I think it is because we’ve glimpsed it. It began for me in the mountains, in that intentional, short season of specific community, where we had to love our neighbor “because he is there,” as Chesterton said. In the midst of that loving, and teaching, and leading, I knew myself again. I glimpsed the shalom, the wholeness, of eternity, in that time the Lord had given me to join Him in redeeming. But it was always going to end, and in the pain of that ending, early that Sunday morning, I fled for comfort to the church. I fled for comfort not because my church is a place of rich known-ness: in fact, relationship building has been painfully slow. But because somewhere deep within I knew that what I was grieving in that moment was eternity glimpsed, and I needed to put myself in the space of remembrance. Remembering that while we’re here, we are not meant to do this alone. So we gather, as if to kneel in a posture of humility under that truth.

It’s an astounding thing, really, if you stop and think of it, that Christ called us first to oneness, in order that the world may believe. He called us to preaching and service, yes, to grace and to love, but also to oneness. And there are all sorts of other gifts that come from fellowship with believers, but none of them must overshadow the alter that sanctifies them – the God that gives them and says that even if none of them are true, even if I don’t know you and I feel as alone as I ever have, I’m called to stand beside you because it’s not about either of us. It’s about proclaiming the truth of eternity whether we feel it today or not, and praising the God who is the same today as He will ever be. It’s an act of defiant pilgrimage, responding to our culture’s idolatry of fulfillment through individual arrival to say that we’ve glimpsed a different end, and its hope is all-compelling. I’ve been chewing on that one for months now.

This Sunday, I slipped into church aching for eternity. I felt battered and weary by the contrast of reality with the promised redemption of all things. I felt beat down by brokenness, by the way we are capable of treating each other, by the battles of unfulfilled desire, by my own utter weakness. But I also came in immense hope, pleading for the church to be the community that it is meant to be. I came in my brokenness and desperation, but also, in the Lord’s grace, in the midst of a weekend of reminders that it is primarily in my need of others that I most often catch those glimpses of eternity. I glimpsed it on Friday night, as I sat with a friend and we spoke of the longing of not wasting time in the realness of conversation. I glimpsed it on Saturday, as I sat at a conference that challenged us to speak into unspoken spaces, for we’re not supposed to battle in them alone. And I glimpsed it that morning, as my pastor reminded us that in light of anything this week holds, we gather in the hope of a kingdom which cannot be shaken.

And then we came to the table, to that ultimate act of community and of remembrance. Remembrance not only of that which is past, but present and future, an eternity-glimpsing remembrance, a oneness-proclaiming gathering. Just as the people of Israel did, huddled together in their homes in the darkest night they had known, we eat together in the bold faith of a coming redemption.

We eat together because we need to be humbled, by kneeling side by side, to remember that we come to this table as equals.

We eat together because we need to be strengthened by the faith of others in the days we do not glimpse the promise which our eating proclaims.

And we eat together because the last prayer Christ prayed for us before dying for us was that we might be one, and in the striving for that oneness, we glimpse the way things have always been meant to be.

As my pastor ended his sermon yesterday, after whatever may come, this much will remain true: next Sunday morning we’ll gather once again in that space and around the world and praise Christ as Lord. We’ll call each other to remember that there is a feast coming that gives meaning to our lives, and that in that moment’s fullness, we will lack nothing. We’ll call each other to remember that until then, our brokenness pushes us to isolate, but we need each other. I needed to remember that this week. I needed to stand in the front of church, and place the bread in my mouth as we sang…

Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed
You are the faithful One
Starting from the garden to the grave
Bind us together, bring shalom…

So I stood there, and I cried.
For someday we will feast in the house of Zion.
And in the brokenness and the waiting and the ache, being with you helps me remember.

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a day on the trail


4:45 am, the square numbers of my watch alarm flash at me in the darkness. I silence it and lay still for just a moment, listening to the soft breathing of the students next to me, the rhythmic waves of an ocean that never sleeps, the occasional bird, and other than that…nothing. I slip out of the tent trying to intrude as little as possible into the morning sacredness. It is beautifully routine: opening the stove, pumping the fuel bottle, the small flare of match light and then the soft blue glow of a priming flame. The rolling and stuffing of the very little I have, or need, for life here, everything tucking away into its same familiar spot in the backpack. The only light the small circle of my headlamp, the only sound the ones I’m making. It’s like being a visitor, yet feeling home.

The stove is ready and as I turn it up it roars into life and sound. A pot of water for coffee goes on top. It’s 5 am, and the student leaders of the day are up and beginning to wake the rest of the group. Everyone is tired, but they don’t complain. Everything has a reason in the woods, including what time you get up. I’m sure it helps that they don’t even know what time it is…it’s just dark or getting light, light or getting dark, with so much more actually being affected by those distinctions than it does in the world of light switches. I sit and watch them for a minute as they move around in the morning. IMG_9471smallTen days ago they didn’t know how to pack a backpack or light a stove, but here they are settled into the routine, water boiling, tents coming down, packed packs leaning against trees, all before the sun has even begun to pierce the inky black. Life takes more work here and we are governed by the series of processes that have to happen to give us strength and move us on to the next night’s location. Maybe it seems tedious to some, but mostly it feels restful, in our overwhelmingly stimulating society, to only have to do a very few things, and be able to do them well. Less options mean less questions, and then space for the deeper questions to emerge, the ones that need an un-distractedness we almost never allow in everyday life. Aren’t you bored in the woods, people sometimes ask? Almost never. In its restrictions I actually feel a freedom that is often missing in my everyday life with its 90% of time spent choosing between options that don’t actually matter, leaving so little time for what really does. I’m not saying I’d want to be here all the time, but that reality, that reminder, is why I treasure this escape on a regular basis.

We’re on the trail by 6 am. The students know the trail, for we hiked it in just two days ago. And so they know that we have to start our day with quad-burning ‘Red Hill,’ unrelenting and exposed and 100 times easier if we can beat the heat of the sun to the top. My co-leader and I didn’t make that decision, today’s student leaders did. As their knowledge grows, so does their ability to make wise decisions for the environment in which they find themselves. It’s the reason I was glad to wake up at 4:45. We hope they will carry these lessons with them out of this place, a reminder that wisdom requires attentiveness to what has come behind and what goes before.

We walk the first part of the trail in mostly silence, stopping only to take off and put back on boots for one chilly river crossing, and then we are at the hill. One by one on the way up, headlamps switch off, the slowly increasing light becoming just enough to let our eyes adjust to its natural dimness. Ahead of us a rugged coastal peak juts into clear blue sky, and the sun is rising right behind it, rays of color seeming to squeeze around its sides, too eager to wait for the full orb to burst from the top. Later, at the end of the trip when we’re telling stories, this will be many people’s favorite morning. We reach the top of the hill just as the sun breaks through in its full brightness and heat, and stop for just a few minutes for some celebratory selfies (these are college students, after all!), and then shoulder the packs and continue on. There are still many miles to go.









There is something really incredible, if strange, about walking all day, just one foot in front of the other, and then going to sleep just to do it all over again the next.  I realize to some people that sounds like some unique form of torture, and I’ll admit, that thought occasionally crosses my mind, usually followed by, “who thought this was fun?” But more often than not, I am reconciled to myself by the end of the day, and loving it again. It doesn’t look like accomplishing much – a measly amount of miles in this world where I can wake up in New York and be in California by the afternoon if I want to – but the place we just came from? You can’t get there except on your legs. You can’t zip in and out again, and there is a wonder in that. A secret, almost. Definitely a simplicity. It’s not the same as the people of old, or the few remaining nomadic groups of today, equipped as we are in our first world society with countless ways to make even the backcountry comfortable and relatively high-tech. But the idea is still the same: you can only bring what you carry. Life must be simple, for it consists of what you hoist on your back. And the older I get, the more I realize my back is not invincible, nor is my faith, and so the less I want to carry, literally and figuratively. The more I want to leave behind, hand over, or give up altogether.

IMG_9412smallJust before the end of that day’s section, the students have a beautiful chance to illustrate that very principle. There is a dangerous section of foot wide trail with cliffs up on our right hand and down on our left to crashing waves below. On the first journey through, going the opposite direction, we stopped them here to explain the danger, and challenge them to choose what we hardly ever do: weakness over pride. This time, we don’t even ask. Reaching the point in the trail they know, several students simply stop and take off their packs, letting others of us pick them up. Whatever battle had to be fought internally, it had already been won, in no small part by the presence of a community that has chosen to define weakness and strength in different ways, and a trip that strives to emphasize at every step the truth that we are defined by what Christ says we are, and nothing else. That, and the necessity of the trail. Watching them, and knowing how hard it is for me to admit weakness in my own situations of necessity, I am so encouraged. How often in life do we take action so decisively, in a way that can’t be hidden, to say “I’m weak and incapable of carrying my portion of weight through this section. In this way, you are stronger. Will you walk twice as far to carry my pack as well as yours?” Of course nobody says those words, but that is what the action demonstrates. For better or worse, it is sometimes harder to hide weakness in the woods. I pray it teaches these students, and myself, to not hide it other times, when it would be easier to. And so others of us shoulder an extra pack, take an extra journey through the section, and it is simply part of being a group. Part of being a body, even. Tomorrow someone else will be weak in a different way, and so no one mentions it, we simply walk on.

We reach our next campsite at 11:30. The students are estatic – it took them significantly longer on the way in, and they wanted to get to camp early enough to hike back to a nearby waterfall. It’s an easy half mile back to the falls, but as we walk further back into the thick growth, thinking it must be getting close but seeing nothing, we begin to prepare ourselves for disappointment. “It must be small,” the students are saying. “There’s not enough space. Why did we bother hiking back here?” Even a mile of extra walking is a lot with the preciousness of time and energy here. Then, without warning and almost seeming to defy possibility, what had been nothing but woods turned a corner and opened into a wide clearing, deep, circular pool, and an incredible 300 foot waterfall crashing down from blue sky.


Laughter and joy and pictures and wonder fill the next several minutes, and then the student leaders tell the group they’ve chosen this spot for today’s Selah, an intentional pause to be with the Lord. For 30 minutes we sit and face the crashing water. I find myself watching the water fall with an attentiveness I never have before, realizing it doesn’t simply fall from top to bottom so much as bump along, slightly diverted by every rock along the way. Sometimes a side current becomes so small it hits one last ledge and simply vanishes into mist, never even making it to the ground. And every single time, the path is different. Watching becomes wonder which becomes prayer, though perhaps not with any words. As Mary Oliver says,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world in the clasp of attention,
isn’t the perfect prayer, but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
but of pure submission. Tell me, what else could beauty be for?

IMG_9553smallI blink away tears as I return praise for just being here, not only with my body, but my heart and mind as well. It is not that I don’t think of home – a shower perhaps, a bed off the ground – or long to talk with those I love, but I have just sat and watched a waterfall for 20 minutes and thought of nothing of the past or the future, the burdens or the fears I inevitably carried into the woods with me. It is an addictive peace, impossible to forget when you’ve tasted it, but incredibly challenging to recreate. I have learned enough to not try to make these moments last. They are gifts to remind me that I spend far more days out of the woods than in it, and that I must fight for that same contentment in the rest of my life, without waterfalls or maybe 20 minutes to sit at all.

We get back to camp by mid-afternoon and settle in for presentations the students have been working on for several days. It’s one of their largest assignments, an engagement with the ideas of beloved and imposter, two concepts from a book they had to read before the course began. It’s a reading and discussion common to many trips we lead, but on this one we have the most time to dive deeply into it, and I’ve been looking forward to today. These concepts of what it truly means to be and live as the beloved of Christ, and discovering and uncovering the imposter selves we put forward to others, hit at the very core of the discussion of identity, such a powerful one for college students. The next two and a half hours are sweet ones. There are skits and laughter, challenging questions, confessions of doubt, and confessions of sin. There are realizations and tears and washing of feet in the icy cold river. IMG_9266smallSome of the students mention, both then and later, that they have never had such open, honest conversation of faith with a group before. It took 11 days of just us and the woods, but they caught a glimpse of what vulnerability and edification look like, a glimpse of authentic relationship in this world of nonstop communication but so little connection. Later, in a rare moment alone, I pray that as our time as a group inevitably ends, and quickly, these students will realize that community is not limited to these people, or our days in the woods. I pray that this glimpse will push them to recreate what they have been a part of here, and that they will seek out those who not only remind them that they are beloved, but also that the One who loves them is worthy of all of their life in response.

Night comes early in the woods. Crouched in small clearings beneath a thick canopy of trees it gets dark here before the rest of the sky. We wait as long as we can, eyes adjusting to the dim until we can’t see what we’re stirring and the headlamps begin to click on. Over dinner my co-leader and I debrief the day. Just the night before we had hit that point  of asking, “are we doing enough?” Maybe it’s the wrong question, but one that usually comes at some point in every trip. And the Lord’s challenge for me in it is always the same: that the growth of these students is not where my identity lies either. But I am called to be faithful in the small and simple moments, and sometimes in those the Lord allows for sweet reminders that He is there, and He is working. I’m thankful for today’s glimpses. We pull over the next day’s student leaders to talk about tomorrow, then gather the whole group one more time before bed. It’s only 9:00 as I’m crawling back into the tent, but I will fall right asleep in the sweetness of physical exhaustion. Tomorrow morning will come early again.