Okay, I will admit it! I played hooky this last Sunday from church.
Here is the story. A month ago I drove up to the Twin Lakes trail head on the east side of Mount Hood for what I thought was going to be a glorious powdery snowshoe adventure. It had just rained hard in Portland the two days before which usually means a few inches of the new fluffy white stuff 4,000 feet above us. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was playing by different rules that week and apparently the clouds dropped all their moisture on this side of the mountain and then passed over the Cascades Range with ne’er a wisp of snow.
The snowshoeing that day was awful—dirty, trampled down, icy pavement. Not only did it lack the magical beauty I was yearning for, it was also treacherous. The ice was so thick that the only people who had an even minimally enjoyable experience were those who left the snowshoes behind in favor of spiked hiking boots.
Last week Portland got dumped on again—this time with a messy combination of snow, rain and ice. I was confident that Mother Nature was not going to play her dirty trick on me two times in a row. There just had to be a whole new blanket of virgin snow up there this time, I thought. I was not disappointed. At least two feet of snow had fallen in the prior 48 hours and I was treated to a magical experience of sacred beauty, contemplative solitude, and rest and refreshment (that is, if you can consider an 8.5 mile leg-screaming snowshoe expedition restful and refreshing. Yes, I know I am a nut!). It was mostly cloudy, but it was still bathed in divine light!
I had planned the following day to consider what church I might visit and how many chores and errands I could check off my list before the day’s end. I got up, moved groggily through my normal morning routine of yoga, devotional reading and prayer journaling. As I considered my next step and the 10 a.m. start time for most church services I noticed that the bright yellow sun was out.
I was still a little wrung out from the overly ambitious snowshoe adventure from the previous day, but the taste of beauty and the hum of God’s presence was still echoing in my ears from the day prior. I knew that if I missed this day there might not be another snow day like this again until next year.
I didn’t ponder too long. On this sabbath day my soul needed to be back up in the mountains following a frigid wintry creek up to one of Oregon’s favorite treasures—Tawanamas Falls. As much as I love the worship, music, fellowship, and prayers of my Presbyterian people it was not strong enough to pull me away from the mountain on this day.
A steep, but short two-mile trek got me to the spot where the trail abruptly ended at the cliff where Cold Springs Creek plummets from a seventy-foot cliff. I took a short video of what I experienced as I made my way to a spot just under the falls (watch the video before you read on). As I let the camera roll I said out loud:
“I didn’t get into church today,
but I am pretty sure that I am in God’s sanctuary.”
I want to let you know that I have been engaged in a somewhat haphazard research project that I am calling “Experiments in Worship.” Since I started this position I have balanced my Sundays partly with preaching and worshiping with our Cascades churches with a host of other experiences. I have worshiped in a Mennonite church, an emerging church, a Unitarian church, and a United Church of Christ church. But I have also taken off to the mountains on occasion, walked silently along the river, and even slept in after a particularly stress-filled week.
In addition, during the week I am showing up at open mic venues, attending concerts and lectures, singing in a peace-themed choir, and meeting with people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and who are often deeply dedicated to compassionate ministries and services in the community.
There is a method to my madness. I have a deep hunch that much of the future of our Pacific Northwest churches is going emerge out the dialogue that takes place between our rich religious tradition and the experimental emerging spiritual expressions of our region. Too much focus on our tradition and we will die in place. Too much credence to that which is experimental and we will forever be unmoored.
Sunday I experimented with what it might mean to worship God on a spectacular and rare sunny day in the Cascades Range after a recent heavy snowfall. I was not disappointed. When I reached my destination, sat on my perch next to the icy waterfall and looked out I knew that I was sitting in a sanctuary of God’s own making. While I did not sing “For the Beauty of the Earth” or recite Psalm 148 at that moment I knew that I was experiencing the hymn and the psalm through the moist cold air, the constant hum of the Falls, the glistening white of the virgin snow, and the tiredness in my legs that told me I had earned this experience.
I made my way back to the trail head where my car was parked. I was full of the spirit. Joy was seeping from my bones. My body felt in rhythm with God’s body.
It was a nearly perfect day. It was as close to perfect as perfect can get. Almost perfect. Just about perfect.
The only thing missing were my people.
Author: Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades