This past weekend, a group of my friends and I headed up to Elfin Lake Trailhead in Garibaldi Park for an overnight hiking trip. Garibaldi Park is one of those expanses of wilderness you catch glimpses of in travel magazines and dream about in moments of poignant mountain wanderlust. Nestled in the coastal mountains and just a few hours up the Sea-to-sky Highway from Vancouver, it’s the kind of place where BC Tourism commercials are filmed, because these views stand amongst the best in the world. The kind of place that makes me fall in love with life and adventure and my home all over again.
It’s a thin space: a space where the gap between heaven and earth doesn’t feel quite so distant. Where beauty nourishes you and gives you strength. Where the presence of God is almost palpable. Where you’re so in awe of the panorama stretching across the sky, that you can hardly think of anything else.
I’ll admit: mountains have a particular hold on my heart. There’s something about the stillness and beauty of the alpine air and the rugged peaks that makes both the best and the worst parts of life better – more beautiful almost. If mountains had eyes or if they could tell stories, they could testify to some of the most meaningful and impactful moments in my story. For some people, the ocean has the same effect: they come alive most in the space where the water and the horizon are hardly distinguishable, where their feet are buried in the sand, and sun dances off the waves and across their skin. For some, it’s rivers rushing white and trees climbing far above their heads.
Many of us have those spaces. The spaces we come back to in our minds and we long to escape to when we need to be reminded that life, though difficult and messy, is still breathtakingly beautiful and so full of wonder and possibility.
In university, I took a course on how art has historically represented man’s relationship with the natural world. I buried myself in the words of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Wendell Berry, spent hours pouring over the photography of Ansel Adams, and read Into the Wild for homework. (Translation: it was one of the most enjoyable classes I have ever taken.) Many of my classmates were the quirky dread-locked, vegan, rock-climbing, live-out-of-the-back-of-a-VW-van and snowboard-away-the-weekends kind of crowd, and together we made up a motley crew of kids searching for hope and meaning beyond the sprawl of consumerism and materialism.
And in that searching we looked primarily to the mountains and to the wilderness. Because, across the spectrum of religious and political opinion, there was a common belief: natural spaces matter.
I don’t know of very many people who would dispute that – especially in Vancouver. Few cities have as deeply an ingrained outdoor heartbeat and environmental ethic as Vancouver. People move here specifically for the access to the mountains and the ocean and the city. It’s the ultimate 3-for-1 West Coast package.
There’s really good news there: natural beauty is a safe and accessible space for our pluralistic society, because we tend to all agree that it’s both important and wonderful. It’s a part of shared humanity we can all get behind. And that shared space is both important and incredible.
Yet, as I stood looking out at the sun setting behind the coastal mountains this past weekend, I was reminded of so many conversations with my mountain-loving uni classmates where I would walk away saddened that to them, the view was the end of the story. The mountains made them feel alive. Nature made them happy. It even brought them a certain degree of peace and pushed them into something beyond the routines and rhythms of everyday life. But that was it. That was the end of the story.
As incredible as these views are, as breathtaking as these sunsets over snowy mountain ranges and pink-hued sunrises over the ocean are: they are only a glimpse of how beautiful and majestic and powerful God is.
But that isn’t the end of the story. If we settle for the shell of the beauty we’ve missed the best part of what creation is meant to show us. The wonder of nature speaks to something beyond ourselves and something necessary beyond the confines of our busy, industrialized lives, but it does so in such a way that fundamentally points us towards Christ. God could have created a purely functional space for us to live, but He instead filled this space with colour and texture and beauty and stillness and diversity.
Fundamentally, natural spaces matter because worship matters. Beauty matters because worship matters. In Psalm 18, David wrote that the heavens declare the glory of God and the very skies proclaim his goodness. In Psalm 148, all of creation joins together in praise. I love that. I love that creation itself testifies to the goodness and grandeur of God himself. That the stars join together in song because they can’t do anything less. And yet, this song is silent. Subtle even. The kind of song that doesn’t over-power, but invites you to lean in close. Where God isn’t invasive or harsh, but extends a compassionate and awe-inspiring invitation to taste and see that He is good. Where His invitation to us is one of wonder.
In his beat-poet style road-trip memoir, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road, Donald Miller wrote: “These mountains, which have seen untold sunrises, long to thunder praise but stand reverent, silent so that man’s weak praise should be given God’s attention.”
So that man’s weak praise should be given God’s attention.
Because, as incredible as these views are, as breathtaking as these sunsets over snowy mountain ranges and pink-hued sunrises over the ocean are: they are only a glimpse of how beautiful and majestic and powerful God is. The most stunning of all vistas pale in comparison to His grandeur. The most awe-inspiring panoramas are only a taste of His majesty. And in that abundance and wonder, creation exists to inspire praise and awe and wonder at how vast and glorious and powerful and good He is.
John Piper said it like this: “God means for us to be stunned and awed by his work of creation. But not for its own sake. He means for us always to look at his creation and say: If the work of his hands is so full of wisdom and power and grandeur and majesty and beauty, what must this God be like in himself!! These are but the backside of his glory seen through a glass darkly. What will it be to see the Creator himself! Not his works! Not even a billion galaxies will satisfy the human soul. God and God alone is the soul’s end.”
The mountains themselves may be silent, but in response to this immense beauty, our lips need not be.