By Dan Clendenin
Last month my wife and I enjoyed a week of hiking in the jaw-dropping beauty of the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Founded in 1915, this year marks its 100th anniversary.
What a glorious week! We spotted several elk. Watched artisans blow glass from a 2100-degree furnace. Sipped lattes by a raging river. Made a grocery run for a simple lakeside supper. Best of all, we enjoyed a week of friendship with our Jewish neighbors.
After we got home, my wife joked that she was still humming John Denver’s 1972 song “Rocky Mountain High” — which song, I’ll admit, we sang out loud while driving up to 12,183 feet on the famous Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States.
The fourth stanza of Denver’s song expresses what we experienced:
“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams,
Seeking grace in every step he takes,
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.”
And then the refrain: “You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.”
While my wife channeled a musician, the hike made me think of a physicist and three poets.
Just before we left for the Rockies, I finished a biography of Einstein. Einstein rejected all aspects of traditional religion, but he also repudiated atheists who tried to claim him for their cause. In a letter about a year before he died, he described himself as a “deeply religious unbeliever” who felt a Cosmic Awe at the beauty and complexity of the world.
Hiking in the Rockies filled me with Cosmic Awe. With apologies to Einstein, basking in all that beauty made me feel like the psalmist for this week: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god.’”
My mind also pinged to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I love my vocation of reading, writing, and reflection, but getting away from the books and into the outdoors is downright therapeutic.
I took to heart Wordsworth’s rebuke in his poem “The Tables Turned.”
Up! up! my friend, and quit your books, Or surely you’ll grow double. Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks; Why all this toil and trouble. . . .
Books! ‘tis a dull and endless trifle: Come, hear the woodland linnet, How sweet his music! on my life, There’s more of wisdom in it. . . .
One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; Our meddling intellect Misshapes the beauteous forms of things —
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art, Close up those barren leaves; Come forth, and bring with you a heart That watches and receives.
To “watch and receive” the divine in nature is good advice.
But another English poet also named William, a contemporary of Wordsworth, reminded me of the limits of romantic views of nature — namely, the problem of evil. In his poem “The Tiger,” William Blake wondered, “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, / Did He who made the lamb make thee?”
Nature alone is limited when it comes to communicating the experience of God. My third poet, Alfred Tennyson, also a contemporary of the two Williams, famously observed that nature can be “red in tooth and claw.”
The Rockies were gorgeous, but Mother Nature can be a real bitch. We hiked through the horrible destruction of a catastrophic flood from September 2013. One night at dinner we sat beside a man confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. Another night our host described how last summer she came home to a bear in her kitchen.
If your spiritual experience is limited to the material world, then your glass is either half empty or at best half full. A dim awareness of a powerful deity is good, but by itself it’s only half a loaf.
The French reformer John Calvin described this ambiguous situation. He called the natural world “a most beautiful book.” Indeed, Paul writes that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Rom. 1:20).
But we can also be “blind in this dazzling theater,” said Calvin. And while sensing Cosmic Awe is a good thing, experiencing Divine Love is another and better thing. Nature alone can’t tell you that.
So, in addition to the book of nature, we need the book of Scripture, which Calvin compared to a pair of spectacles that corrects blurry vision. Scripture tells us the story of Jesus, what Paul calls the mysterious good news that God was in Christ revealing his love and redeeming his world.
And this is where a gaggle of sixth-grade girls on our hike spoke more than they could have known.
On our hardest day, we hiked 10 miles, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain, to a peak called Estes Cone. The last half-mile we climbed 700 feet. And the last 100 feet of that we had to abandon our hiking poles in order to scramble up a rock pile.
Having huffed and puffed our way to 9,852 feet, we anticipated silence and solitude. What we got was a dozen giggling girls from a local Christian camp. And we were just in time for the counselor’s sermonette:
“And how long did it take God to create all this incredible beauty that we see from up here?!”
“And how long did it take God to create you?!”
“That’s right! So, if God created everything in six days, but took nine months to create you, then everything you now see from Estes Cone is a reminder of how much God loves you without any conditions or limits!!!”
To their credit, when they started down the mountain a little later, the counselors apologized for hogging the psychic space in such a public way.
At first I was irritated and embarrassed.
What would our Jewish friends think? Should I say something? Try to explain? Pretend I didn’t hear anything?
Later, I decided that at some level I was badly wrong.
What better thing is there for a person to hear than that they are loved by God, especially our teenagers?
And that’s Paul’s prayer in this week’s epistle.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
In a clever play on words, Paul says that God is the patera of every patria — the “father of every family.” He prays that every person, not just some people, would experience God’s incomprehensible and unconditional love.
Thanks to those sixth graders, that was my Rocky Mountain High — to feel God’s love for me in the beauty of his creation and in the story of Jesus.
Image credits: Photos by Patty and Dan Clendenin, June 2015.