Mountains in the Dark

At the tail end of summer our family loaded up our Chrysler minivan to make the 1200 mile trek from OK to NC. It would be a whirlwind trip to see our family in the middle of a pandemic, a 6 day encapsulation of the nuttiness of 2020.  Like 2020, it began well enough, with near-record-setting time being made…until we hit Nashville and everything flew off the rails like March revisited.  An eta of midnight gradually slid forwards to the deep hours of morning, exhaustion assuaged by keeping my blood pressure high and my hat on backwards (which I’ve learned from my daughter is an oh-so-accurate indicator of my stress level). 

As we crossed the Tennessee/North Carolina border sometime after midnight I lamented the fact I was unable to see the mountains surrounding us. I could sense them, brooding over us as we snaked our way alongside the Pigeon River via I-40. I could picture them in my mind, having seen them countless times over the years: these mountains we call the Appalachians, running from the Deep South of Georgia all the way up the East Cost to the wilds of Maine, running through the earliest memories of my childhood right up to the driver’s seat of our minivan, hurtling through them like a comet through the night sky. That night, outside of the bottom 20 feet of slope illuminated in the glow of my headlights, nothing else of their grandeur could be seen.

I miss those mountains. A few years in the Great Plains will do that to you. I miss being enveloped in the green of the hills. I miss standing on the peak and watching the slow ebb of life far down in the valley below: the furrows of a farmer’s field cut out of the hills, cars creeping along the winding roads, the many rivers and streams racing one another from the heights to the valley floor below. I was born in those hills, and they’ve never left me. Not even two moves out here to the gently rolling land of the plains could squeeze out their memory, or their draw.

God, I miss those hills.

If you’re keeping track, I haven’t written anything here since late May. A good friend astutely observed I must be struggling in some way, because when I struggle or when I’m down, I don’t write. The past year-plus has been…hard. Gosh, I feel like a broken record saying so, but it is what it is. I’d say “hashtag 2020” but it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s just midlife? I dunno, but even if your personal life were the stuff of fairy tales right now, you’d have to have your head fully in the sand to not feel the weight of our world and our country bearing down upon your shoulders: COVID-19, racism, violence, unrest, unemployment, political upheaval…the list goes on and on. For me when I take all of that and couple it with my own struggles and concerns, it can be overwhelming. Trying to speak anything positive in the midst of that and not sounding like a jerk isn’t easy. Just go and scroll your social-media feed if you doubt me.

And in the midst of it all the things I held onto for footing seemed to be shifting beneath my feet. I’m not talking just #2020 but the past several years: the ups, the downs, the hurts, the disappointments. I’ve learned we all, if we’re honest, have our faith tested over and over throughout our days, but the last few years seem to have been one big-freaking-test after another. The cumulative effect has been…unsettling. If I’m honest, it’s been hard for me to sense God’s presence. I’m not talking goosebumps at church, or the things we can stir up to make ourselves feel good and think “I’m ok.” I’ve gone through periods of “desert” or “dryness” in my life but never anything like this.

Though it’s been several years since I’ve spent any time in the mountains of my home, still I can recall their beauty and grandeur even while standing in the middle of a never-ending field of wheat in Oklahoma. I can call to mind the feeling of hiking through a thick canopy of hardwood trees and suddenly stepping into the sunlit space of a grassy bald on the Blue Ridge. It’s not the same as seeing them or walking them in person, but it serves to remind, to settle, to calm until I can once again stand in those places.

Faith seems to be a lot like that.  I’ve never lived in the mountains…only visited.  The experiences there have marked me and shaped me, they’re part of me, but they haven’t been my day-to-day reality.  In like manner, I’ve experienced the grace of God in many ways in my life, and I’ve seen Him do things I can’t explain through natural means, and yet, day to day it seems walking with Him is like driving through those mountains at night…I know He’s there, but dang it, I just wish I could see Him. 

The author of Hebrews famously wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  

Sometimes I wish He’d just light things up so we could see clearly, you know? Blind faith sucks, doesn’t it? As those mountains loomed when we passed quickly in the night, I knew they were there, even though all I could see was shrouded in deep shadow. There in the dark on I-40 I could feel the surety of those mountains much more than I’ve sensed the presence of God of late.

Years ago, one of my favorite songwriters, Andrew Peterson, wrote a song called “No More Faith” (which ironically begins with “This is not another song about the mountains” but I digress). The chorus is the lyric that’s sticking out to me right now:

I say faith is a burden, it’s a weight to bear.

It’s brave and bittersweet.

And hope is hard to hold to

Lord I believe, only help my unbelief.

Till there’s no more faith and no more hope,

I’ll see your face and Lord I’ll know That only love remains.

Andrew Peterson, No More Faith

The day when faith is sight. The day when questions become answers or get swallowed up in knowing, or however that’s gonna go. I long for that day just like I long for the hills of my childhood. The older I get, the deeper the longing for all things to be made new becomes.

I’m sure you feel it too.

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