I do not mind camping, but I have always had a few rules – and the older I get the fewer exceptions to these rules I allow –
I do not like crowded campgrounds. Chandler and I go camping every fall. It is a tradition we have kept for over five years now. I like camping in the fall because there are fewer people. Chandler will tell you how we select our camping spot – it needs to have at least two empty spaces on each side and some proximity to the bathhouse and restrooms.
That’s rule number two – I do not generally like to have to walk down a hallway or outside to a different building to go to the restroom or take a shower. In the rare instances that I do (like on our annual camping trip), I will move heaven and earth to get the shortest walk to the cleanest restroom with the fewest people.
Rule number three – it needs to be cool at night if I am in a tent. That’s why we always go in the fall. I do not sleep well, if at all, in hot weather.
And, fourth, it needs to be quiet. Noises at night keep me awake. At home Kim and I sleep with a fan running for both the cool and the noise. It drowns out all the little sounds that might wake us up.
Which brings me to the last rule for camping, and this one is key – camp close to home. This rule is an important safeguard in case any of the above conditions suddenly come into question during the camping trip. If things go awry, you hop in the car and head to the air-conditioned, quiet, two and a half bathroom apportioned, suburban home.
I managed to make it through my sabbatical trips, of which there were many, without violating any of these rules until last week. Last week we (Kim, Chandler, and me) went on a camping trip to Yosemite with my brother Jonathan and partner Caesar and my brother Rory. Every rule was violated.
It was crowded. And by crowded I mean that you had to wait in line for everything – eating, drinking from a water fountain, shopping, using the restroom and taking a shower (see Rule #2), riding the bus – everything. There were people in every nook and cranny of the place, and they were all trying to see and do the same things as us.
We were staying in a tent village. For the uninitiated, these are standing tents with one or two beds inside, and bathhouses down the way. Did I mention it was crowded? I stood in a little gathering with other suffering men and boys every night as we waited for a shower or a toilet. We did our best to console one another with niceties, but you could see it on all the faces, the silent question, “Why am I here? Why are YOU here, standing in my way, when all I want is to take a shower in peace?”
It was hot. San Francisco is cool all the time – at least cool to this Tennessee boy – but Yosemite is not in San Francisco (who knew?!). Yosemite is basically in the Sierra Nevada, which is – wait for it – a DESERT. This means it gets hot in the day, and cools off at night. But it is not cool when it is time for bed. It is still hot. Very hot, especially in the tent.
And noisy. Some young boys from Sacramento were in the tent next to ours, and as far as I can tell, they were parentless. They talked into the designated quiet time and beyond, and when they stopped talking, they started snoring. There is no fan to drown them out since there was no electricity in the tent. So sleep was, let’s just say, elusive.
At night, when it was time to go to the bathroom, I had to make the same calculation – Do I really need to go badly enough to get out of this bed, don enough clothing to be respectable, put on shoes, and walk through the campground with one eye out for bears or mountain lions (which we were told were in abundance)? Or do I just shift around uncomfortably till morning light was enough to see any and all wildlife?
Every rule was violated.
I had a great time. Perhaps one of the best times of my life.
From the moment we drove into the park, I developed the habit of looking up. In Yosemite I am surrounded by not so much mountains as peaks. Everywhere you turn there is a new vista overshadowing whatever may be happening below. El Capitan, Half Dome, Matterhorn – the names imply power – but for me they were a point of reference. Every time I found myself getting frustrated by the circumstances below, every time I groused about this inconvenience or that irritation, someone would say, “Look up.” And when I did, I was freshly overwhelmed, and my perspective shifted. In the shadow of these peaks, the line I was standing in did not seem as important.
After I looked up, I invariably brought my eyes back down to earth with a renewed gratitude. I was with my remarkable brothers, sharing time together that is too rare in the midst of our busy lives. I was with Kim and Chandler (wishing Caleb was there too), and I recall with overwhelming thanksgiving the gifts that they are. And all the people around me – so many people – they spoke dozens of languages, and they too were looking up in awe. We were sharing this transcendent experience together, collapsing whatever barriers might exist in the shadows of the peaks.
The Israelites received the Law from Moses from the mountain. Jesus preached to his followers the Way that leads to life from the mount and was enveloped in light with Moses and Elijah on the mountain we’ve come to call “Transfiguration.” I understand it all a little better after my time among those magnificent cliffs.
An ancient Christian says, “God above us, God beneath us, God around us, God within us.” I catch a hint of what this means standing beneath the peaks. God is ever present, transcendent and immanent, without and within. No matter the circumstances, God is there. If there is suffering, God is there. If there is joy, God is there. In life and in death, God is there.
If the cross means anything, it is this – God is present with us in the midst of life, even to the point of death. Like the mighty mountains of Yosemite, God’s presence frames our lives, and, if we have eyes to see, can grant us a new perspective and a new peace. When the “rules” we so carefully construct to preserve ourselves, our comfort, our security, our status, and our lives, come crashing down – that is the time to look up.
As my sabbatical comes to a close shortly, I give thanks for this and so many other experiences that have opened my eyes afresh to the presence of Christ all around. I thank the congregation I serve, whom I miss and look forward to seeing soon. And I thank the Lilly Endowment for having the confidence in our vision to fund it in its entirety. I hope the things I have experienced and learned will help me “look up” more often.