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LIFE AS WE WOULD WANT IT ... LIFE AS WE ARE GIVEN ITThe Beauty God Brings from Life's Upheavals
By KEN GIRE
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Ken Gire
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Terrifying Upheavals of Life
All Nature's wildness tells the same story: the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort, each and all, are the orderly, beauty-making love-beats of Nature's heart.
John Muir "Three Adventures in the Yosemite." Century Magazine, March, 1912
I love the mountains, especially the Rocky Mountains. I have loved them since my first vacation to Colorado as a young boy. They seem so regal with their shoulder capes of snow, ruling from such lofty thrones. Just being in their presence is ennobling. When sitting with them, I feel as if I have been seated at some royal table, a common knave in the company of kings.
I come to these mountains for a lot of reasons. To get away from the phone is one. And from the computer. And the incremental nag of the organizer that minces my day, telling me where I should be and when, what I should be doing and for how long. I come for exercise. And solitude. I come to give my thoughts room to wander, uncinching them so they can go off grazing by themselves, without me guiding them or chiding them.
The mountain I'm hiking is somewhere around 8,000 feet. The air up here is crisp and clean but also thin. I stop against an outcropping of rock to let my breath catch up. A stream passes beneath me, scalloped with sunlight. Crumblings of granite, called skree, are strewn over the ground, a transitional link from the pinkish gray of the rock to the pinkish brown of the soil. A few tired trees lean diagonally against the tall brown strength of other trees. A giant of a pine lies lifeless on the ground, tethered there by the Lilliputian forces of the forest, patiently awaiting its decay.
I continue up the coarsely cut road to where it dwindles to a path, then a footpath. I pass a sign that tells me I am entering Rocky Mountain National Park. Everything is still, like held breath. The only sound is the wind mussing tops of trees. Walking farther, I find myself surrounded by a hushed conclave of boulders so huge they dwarf everything around them. In the silence I can hear myself breathing, feel my heart pounding. I find a grassy spot on the downward slope of the mountain and sit to take in the view. Across the way is another row of peaks, serrated against the sky as if the great, fossilized back of some fallen dinosaur.
So captivating is the view, you can hardly think about anything else. The poet, William Cullen Bryant, who was also captivated by the Rocky Mountains, wrote:
Let thy foot Fail not with weariness, for on their tops The beauty and majesty of earth, Spread wide beneath, shall make thee to forget The steep and toilsome way.
He was right. The beauty and majesty of these mountains did make me forget the steep and toilsome hike it took to get here. They also made me remember why I came.
I feel closer to God up here. That is a big reason why I came, why I always come. The mountains are so conducive to His company. The distant peaks seem the spires of some ancient cathedral. The tall pines seem on their way to worship there, but they have stopped, as if some solemn monastic order, pausing for their hour of prayer.
Sitting up here, much more than by gazing up here from the foothills, I understand why mountains have captured the spiritual imagination of so many civilizations throughout history.
The Bible records a number of such instances. Pagan religions placed their altars and shrines in the high mountains (Deut. 12:1-3). Mountains are often referred to, figuratively, as the dwelling place of God (Ps. 68:15-16). It is to His dwelling place in these mountains that we are called to look for help in times of need (Ps. 121:1). Mountains are associated with sacrifice (Mt. Moriah, Gen. 22), with testing (Mt. Carmel, 1 Kings 18:20-46), with revelation (Mt. Sinai, Exod. 19:17-20:21; Mt. Horeb, 1 Kings 19:8-18), and with worship (Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Zion, John 4:19-21).
More recently, these majestic peaks captured the spiritual imagination of a man named John Muir. An ardent conservationist, Muir was the most renowned mountaineer in U. S. history. And, the most respected. For a period of twenty five years in the late 1800s, he set physical standards for climbing that are hard to believe for a man who used no ropes or climbing tools, carried no tent or camping equipment. Taking with him the most Spartan of provisions-a little bread, tea, oatmeal, and a blanket or two-Muir climbed many of the major peaks of North America, including Mt. McKinnley, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Ranier, Mt. Ritter, and the sub-range of peaks south of Yosemite.
Muir often climbed alone, even in below-zero weather. The thin air and mountain foliage seemed to intoxicate him. He brought to the sport of climbing not only a love for Nature but also a philosophy that saw within Nature the beauty of God's designs.
Raised a strict Calvinist, Muir had memorized all of the New Testament and three quarters of the Old by the time he was eleven. He could, in fact, recite the entire New Testament without stopping. As he grew older, he left his religious roots though never abandoned his love for God or his awe for God's handiwork. He saw beauty everywhere, from the grandest peaks to the smallest crystals.
With the apostle Paul, John Muir believed that the natural creation revealed the power and majesty of God (Rom. 1:20). Muir's experience of God in creation was so real that sharing it became an evangelistic obsession. "Heaven knows," he said, "that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God's mountains."
Muir didn't always feel this way about God's mountains, though. In 1866, he moved to the industrial city of Indianapolis, intent on becoming an inventor. In his childhood he had built clocks, thermometers, a barometer, and a combination lock from ordinary household materials. Though his neighbors ogled over his accomplishments, his sternly religious father refrained from praising him for fear it might lure the boy toward the sin of pride.
Arriving in Indianapolis, Muir secured employment at a large machine shop, where his work distinguished him so much that the owners wanted to bring him into the firm as a partner. Shortly before the owners made their offer, an accident happened. A metal file Muir was working with slipped and punctured his eye. He lost sight in that eye, and his other eye went into a state of "sympathetic" blindness.
Entering this nether world of darkness, Muir fell into an abyss of depression. Gradually he recovered his sight. As he did, he recovered something else, a new appreciation for the gift God had returned to him. During this time a transformation was taking place within him, and he felt on the verge of finding some new mission for his life. While he was convalescing in bed, looking through a brochure of the Yosemite valley, that mission became clear.
Visiting the recuperating Muir, the owners offered him a partnership. He turned it down. In a letter to a friend, he explained why. "As soon as I got out into Heaven's light I started on another long excursion, making haste with all my heart to store my mind with the Lord's beauty and thus be ready for any fate, light or dark. And it was from this time that my long continuous wanderings may be said to have fairly commenced. I bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the inventions of God."
Muir's blindness was an upheaval in the landscape of his life. The upheaval plunged him into physical and emotional darkness. In time he emerged from the darkness, seeing the world through different eyes. With his vision restored and his passion renewed, Muir set about exploring the beauty of the great alpine wonders of North America. He later founded a society of conservationists called the Sierra Club. He also worked tirelessly to preserve Nature's wonders and helped to turn many of them into national parks. Through his speaking and writing, he returned a spiritual dimension to Nature that for so long had been lost to Christianity.
Muir's life was filled with long pilgrimages to the mountains he loved. Some of them were monastic stints where he sauntered off by himself. Others were taken in the company of friends. He referred to mountains as "the manuscripts of God," an allusion to the title of a poem by Henry Longfellow:
And nature, the old nurse, took The child upon her knee, Saying, "Here is a story book My father hath writ for thee. Come, wander with me," she said, "In regions yet untrod And read what is still unread In the manuscripts of God."
Having studied those divine texts, Muir used them to proclaim the glory of God. He was a prophet, of sorts, and did what prophets do best-help people to see and to understand.
I am one of those people.
He helped me to see what is beautiful.
And to understand that the first stage of beautiful is upheaval.
I was browsing a bookstore one day when I happened upon a topographical map of Colorado, molded in plastic. A yellow line representing Interstate 25 ran down the center, dividing the map in half. I stooped to pick it up and ran my fingers across its surface. The eastern half had barely a dimple on the landscape. The western half had peaks and valleys that formed the southern range of the Rocky Mountains.
Though I lived near that concrete seam dividing the state, I had never seen where I lived from that perspective. The contrast was striking. The even terrain of eastern Colorado was smooth to the touch. The uncertain terrain of western Colorado was bumpy.
The map intrigued me, so much so, that I bought it and took it home. I thought about it a lot. It seemed a parable of some kind. Nature is as full of parables as a mountain is with wildflowers, each holding a secret that can't be forced. Slowly over the days that followed, the petals of that parable unfolded.
Eastern and western Colorado.
Smooth, even terrain ... and bumpy, uncertain terrain.
Life as we would want it ... and life as we are given it.
The physical landscape was a metaphor of the landscape of our lives. One had no upheavals. The other was full of them.
If the contrasting landscapes represented two different ways of life, which landscape, I wondered, would I pick for mine?
Eastern Colorado, of course. At least, that was my initial response. Then I thought about it. I thought about how flat and featureless eastern Colorado is. And I realized.
Nobody comes to eastern Colorado for a vacation.
They all come to western Colorado.
They come to hike and to camp and to fish. They come to ski and to sightsee. They come to take pictures so they can savor the experience themselves and share it with others.
Why do they come, I wondered?
Beauty, I think, is what draws them. Looking from the back deck of my house, I take in the beauty of the panoramic sweep of the Front Range. It is so peaceful here. As I reflect upon its origins, though, I realize that this landscape wasn't always beautiful, and living here wasn't always peaceful.
Once this was the most terrifying place in all of Colorado to live.
At the onset of the great Flood, the earth's crust fractured, releasing subterranean reservoirs of water (Gen. 7:11). The fractures broke the earth into massive tectonic plates and sent them drifting as continents. As the floodwaters receded, the earth convulsed (Ps. 104:1-8). Gripping contractions within the earth pushed great formations of rock to crown its surface. The sounds of labor were deafening. If you lived here, you would have fled for your life, if your life had even survived the ordeal. With a grating scream and one final push, the Rocky Mountains were born, and a great granite nakedness lay shivering on the earth's surface.
What a price to pay for beauty. Was it worth it, I wonder? Was the majestic beauty of the Rockies worth the terrifying upheavals that produced them?
An unqualified yes.
But then, I'm the one on the back deck, admiring the view ... not the one in labor, giving birth.
The upheaval came one quiet afternoon when I was alone.
It came in the form of a phone call from a friend. Her first sentence was an uninflected greeting. Her second sentence started with the name of a close friend's son, followed by the word "suicide." I can't remember another word after that word. I only remember crying, "Oh, no. Oh, God, no, no, no."
I hung up the phone and slumped to the bed. My body trembled, my chest heaved. "Oh, no. Oh, God, no," I moaned, over and over and over. "Oh, God, no, no." I couldn't stop crying and shaking.
I called Judy at work. "I need you to come home."
"What's the matter?"
My voice crumbled. "I just need you to come home, now."
"Is it your mom?"
"No," I answered, crying.
"What's the matter? You have to tell me what's the matter," she insisted. "Is it one of the kids?"
"No." And then I told her.
Twenty minutes later, she arrived. Meeting her at the door were a couple of close friends. We held each other and cried. I couldn't stop trembling though. Or weeping. Or moaning. "He was just a kid. He was just a kid."
I never cried so hard or so long in my life. The two friends hugged me and stood by me until it seemed the tears had run their course. Then the phone rang. Judy answered it. It was the boy's father, asking for me. The weight of his name, when Judy said it, bent me over on the kitchen counter, spilling out more tears. Judy took the phone in the other room.
I didn't have the strength to face the friend's voice. "Oh, God," I pleaded, "please help me, please. Please help me."
I pushed myself to the phone, still sobbing. My friend told me the details in as few words as I could bear to hear. After he said goodbye, I sat on the side of the bed, quiet and empty and still.
My friend and his wife had been at the hospital when each of our children were born, and my wife and I had been at the hospital when each of theirs were. We knew the boy who committed suicide since the day of his birth. We watched him grow up, some years up close, other years from a distance. Our children knew him. One of our daughters was in the same classroom with him at school. More recently, he stayed with us several days during a snowstorm on his way home.
We drove to the funeral, where Scriptures were read and explanations were given. An all-things-work-together-for-good hope was extended to the family. The words were addressed to the father mostly because it was the father that these men mostly knew. You will become a better preacher because of this, a better writer, too.
I believe the men were sincere and their words true. I believe the family will emerge from this a closer family, a stronger family. I believe the father indeed will become a better preacher and a better writer.
Given the choice, though, this father would have settled for being less of a preacher and less of a writer. But he was not given the choice. He would have given up the books he had already written and the sermons he had already preached. But he was not given that choice. He would have given his own life. He was not given that choice, either.
The trip back to Colorado was long and quiet and crowded with thoughts. When I arrived home, it was to the only partially finished book you are now reading. I didn't want to finish it, partly because I didn't have the energy to finish it, but partly, too, because I didn't want to be partner to a platitude. I didn't want to write and tell people about the beauty God brings from the upheavals in our lives when I couldn't see so much as a sprig of beauty coming from this. I didn't want to write, not just on this book, but ever again.
A terrible thing happened. For whatever reason, God allowed the human will to go forward, unchecked, with all its frightful consequences. He allowed the will of the Enemy to go forward, too, unchecked, too, with all of its frightful consequences.
Why? I can't answer that. And if I could, I wouldn't-at least not to the family. If an earthquake were to hit your house, and you were dazed from the destruction, battered from the falling debris, and bleeding from the shattered glass, crying out "why," what comfort would there be in someone giving you a geological answer for what happened?
Excerpted from LIFE AS WE WOULD WANT IT ... LIFE AS WE ARE GIVEN IT by KEN GIRE Copyright © 2007 by Ken Gire. Excerpted by permission.
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