Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
I grew up near the old stomping grounds of Emerson and Thoreau in a picturesque town in the corner of New Hampshire. To the east were the frigid waters of the north Atlantic, waters too cold to ever swim in. To the south was Boston and acres of concrete. To the west were the vibrantly green hills of Vermont dotted with silence and snow. But it was north that always tugged on my heart. To the north lay the great White Mountains where my brother and I spent time looking for the father we lost in those hills, earlier than either of us can remember. Our parents divorced when we were still children, and what little we have learned about our Dad has centered on the fact that he loved those granite outcroppings, and visited them often in his youth. Our father did not die, not in the literal sense anyway. But our relationship with him has never been fully alive either. Except for just a handful of occasions when we hiked together in those same hills, neither my brother nor I have many memories of ever having a father. But what we did inherit from him was a deep need to be in open spaces and a desire to breathe air that has only been heated or cooled by the wind and the sun. In a word, we seek freedom.
The mountains that beckoned my father away from his family are the very same ones that have called me back to my family again and again.The promise of freedom is one of the most alluring and curious offerings of the great outdoors. It is a mixed blessing that connects as much as isolates, and exposes as often as it numbs. The difference always lies in our motivations to explore and whom we are hoping to meet along the journey. For my father, the anxiety of being a young husband and father left him feeling in need of an accessible escape from the demands of paternity and matrimony which weighed heavily upon him. Excursions to the mountains that lay just an hour north were his retreat to a place in which he felt in control, a place where the only expectations were the ones he placed on himself to keep climbing higher, further, faster. In contrast to the ones waiting for him back home, these were expectations he felt like he could achieve.
On the flip-side, my father’s absence became the external symptom for the internal rift that was growing between him and my mother, until no bridge appeared able to repair it,and they parted ways. I was just two, and with the hole my father’s absence left, I sought solace in wide-open spaces where I could feel in control and where expectations were infinitely lower than those I faced at home. The mountains that, in many ways, took my dad from me, became the same hills I ran to for relief.
But the pain of a boy without a father is a pain that cannot be lifted easily, and after raging and rebelling my way through my teenage years, I finally left home at age nineteen in pursuit of more spaces to fill the void. My journeys found me rambling south for a thousand miles to hike, paddle and climb for four years in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. En route to earning a degree in Outdoor Education, the rhododendron and mountain laurel covered hills also provided me with the space and time to ask questions, meet mentors, and receive some much needed healing. Most importantly, I met God in those wild places, He who was teaching me that His creation needn’t remain just a place for me find escape, but instead it was a sanctuary through which He was willing to invite me to come and rest.
I first glimpsed this reality during my honeymoon in which my new bride and I backpacked across the Presidential Range in the White Mountains. To many it may have appeared to be nothing more than a simple jaunt through some familiar trails of my youth, but it proved to be much, much more. In reality, the trip was one that my father had promised to take me on countless times throughout my youth. It was a trip that simply never came to fruition. In contrast the trip with my wife was a step across a threshold that marked the beginning of a new season of my life, a rite of passage that solidified God’s penchant for recapitulation, redeeming the storyline of our lives by rewriting the unfinished chapters. Like the sunrise that broke over Mt. Washington in the early hours of the morning, I was reminded that God’s Kingdom is chasing away the darkness of the land in order to re-create every aspect of his creation- hillsides as well as humans.
Years later my wife and I became parents to three young boys. Early and often we introduced them to the natural world. By tent, boots, and bikes we have tried to show them that the God of the Bible we cherish is not only found in steeples and pulpits, but in the roar of white-water and in a display of lighting bouncing off a ridgeline. This is why, when they each turned seven I took them into the woods. In an evening of fire and steel I spent the night with each one of them retelling the story of Joshua, after which I hand them a knife with their initials and the word ”strength” etched across its blade. It is a night that marks the passage of time and the passage of sins. It is a monument to God’s agenda of emancipation for His children, and it is a testimony to freedom.
The mountains that beckoned my father away from his family are the very same ones that have called me back to my family again and again. As I stated earlier, it all depends on who are planning to meet when you venture into the woods. Some seek after the hills in order to do battle with their inner demons, their self-doubt, or to find an inner Nirvana that never seems to arrive. Others enter the woods to become reacquainted with the only one who truly knows them, the one who made them, and the only one who can speak the ultimate truth to them about their lives.
The fascinating thing about the wilderness is that our reasons to seek it out are often as varied as the colors that erupt amidst the October foliage. Some don a backpack and simply run. For people like this the trees offer an escape from reality, a hiding place free from community, accountability, and noise. That is what I believe the mountains were for my father. As a young husband and even younger dad, his weekly retreats to the see the granite hillsides were his withdrawal from responsibility as well as the vulnerability and intimacy demanded by a family. I know plenty of people who interact with the outdoors in this fashion. Whether they venture into the landscape with rod, rifle, kayak or crampons, many explorers head into the woods not to find God, but to hide from Him.
This world can be a harsh place for anyone who does not wish to be truly known, and wild foliage can serve as a fig leaf, offering a temporary cover for the ugliness that tends to sneak out in community. Conflict, anxiety, and let-downs are commonplace in human relationships, and all of us, to one extent or another, spend a great deal of our time trying to conceal our true selves from the watching world. Afraid of being rejected, it is easier for some to simply remove themselves from the potential by hasty getaways into the hills. Rocks and rivers seem much safer than relatives.
But it is a counterfeit-freedom that masks the true escape that God offers to us in His creation. The wilderness does in fact offer freedom, but it is a freedom to be found instead of a freedom to become lost.
When I first experienced the natural world at an early age it was immediately clear that, like music, the great outdoors has an incredible potential to communicate God’s “invisible qualities” in a language without words. The Apostle Paul tells us that through creation God is able to uniquely display “his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20). This means that there are distinctive aspects of God that we uniquely encounter in his handiwork- namely his power and his nature.
For those who have eyes to see, the cascading waterfall and the glacier become unparalleled windows that introduce us to the God who is more powerful than our hearts might dare to trust–a God powerful enough to mend wounds, redeem broken promises and give us the strength to forgive. This is the God I continue to meet when I step from my tent and gaze upward to a sky engulfed in starry light, the God whose display of eternal power in volcanoes and geysers reminds me that whatever problems and temptations I am trying to run from, they remain infinitely manageable to him.
In all of this wonder, if we dare to listen, we can also discover that the God who created the entire Universe, with all of its awesome marvel also made His children. In the wild we receive pointers towards God’s nature that reveal Him to be both infinitely creative and caring. Indeed, this is what Jesus revealed when He charged His followers to consider the way the lilies of the field are clothed by their creator (Matt. 6:28). We needn’t worry about the Father’s love and care for those who He considers to be of even greater worth than the wildflowers of a canyon.
In this way the great outdoors serves as a gateway to one of the more profound senses of freedom known to man. It is not the passing freedom of escape into anonymity, but just the opposite. When we enter the wild in order to commune with our Creator, we are presented with the incredible gift of being fully known. It is the gift of spiritual nakedness through which the one who knew me before the foundations of the earth can whisper my true name and remind me that the gospel of redemption is unfolding before my very eyes.
I see it in my marriage to a woman who refuses to stop holding my hand as we hike some of the most rugged territory my feet have ever trod upon. I see it in the eyes of each of my sons who are transforming the last name of my father into a redeemed legacy of the future.
And I see it in me – a bitter and broken boy from New Hampshire who finally found his true Father in the very same place where thought he had lost one; in the wilderness that reminds each of us constantly that the resurrection has started and that indeed, all things are being made new.
Steve Woodworth is the Director of Spiritual Formation at Toccoa Falls College and the Associate Coordinator for the International Theological Education Network. You can read his blog at www.thethursdycircle.com and follow him on twitter @steve_woodworth
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