Muir and Wander (awe and wonder)

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John Muir, the Scottish born, ‘Father of the National Parks’ apparently said that he would,  “rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking of the mountains.” It’s a great line for a bumper sticker or a tea towel, perhaps not an altogether surprising perspective when you consider Muir’s other nickname was ‘John of the Mountains.’ Yet, the Muir quote is pertinent for me. My family and I are preparing to move to Cumbria, close to the Lake District, heart of England’s mountains, sometime this summer. (moving date dependent on the current Covid-19 restrictions). We’re moving because of our Christian faith, because we believe that God has called us as a family to serve in Keswick, where I will, hopefully, be Assistant Curate at St John’s Church with Borrowdale. We’re really excited about this move, especially considering we get to live in Cumbria, one of our favourite places.

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How often do you hear from walkers, climbers and runners, that ‘the mountains are my church’? I’ve had these conversations lots of times with fellow runners and walkers, who look into the distance and say, ‘that’s my church out there’…Can that be so? I am definitely not convinced that a solitary experience in the hills makes a church, but I do think that our time in the mountains is special, somehow offering the possibility of a heightened awareness of God. How is it that we experience something beyond ourselves when we are in the wide open spaces of the hills?

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The hills, fells and mountains of the Lake District are without question a favourite place of ours. Many a long day has been spent walking, climbing and running amongst them. As you will know getting out into mountains needs motivation, there is always a question before you set off, ‘should I stay home today, should I opt for comfort?’ ‘It feels a bit cold, windy, cloudy to be safe’ The first step is undoubtedly the hardest, tougher than steep climbs, tricky scrambles or slippery descents. It’s a step of faith in a sense, but rarely, if ever, do you regret it. Bone-tired limbs, eyes filled with magnificent views, a sense of achievement and a commitment to the next adventure are the rewards you return with after making that first step.

But it is always worth it, solvitur ambulando is a latin phrase credited to St Augustine, meaning ‘it is solved by walking.’[1] We know intuitively that walking in the mountains will help with the stresses and strains of day to day life. The present situation, with coronavirus, makes the hills and mountains quite rightly out of bounds. Ther are many who will be missing the therapeutic possibilities of time on our feet in the hills. Admittedly a small price to pay against the efforts of those who are working tirelessly in hospitals to fight Covid-19.

Recently as part of my own ‘lockdown’ activities, I’ve been reading Lucy Jones’ excellent book ‘Losing Eden: Why our Minds Need The Wild’  It’s a welcome break from theology! The author charts western society’s disconnection with nature and the impact this has had on our mental health and well-being. Using a 1990’s study that took a scientific approach to the emotion of awe, Jones is able to show how experiences of awe increase happiness and lower stress. Awe, despite society’s increasing disconnectedness with nature, often still comes from an encounter with creation, such as visits to the lakes and mountains of the Lake District. I certainly know the strong urge in a moment or season of stress to head for long runs or hikes in the hills. In those moments I am craving the therapy of ‘solvitur ambulando.‘ Jones highlights other studies that show the positive effects on the body and mind of ‘awe’ experiences, potentially reducing depression and ill health. Her work goes on to propose that mountain top awe filled experiences have the potential to reduce brain activity in the area of the brain associated with the sense of self.

“Awe, then can shift us away from pure self-interest to be interested in others. It can help us bond and relate to each other. It can turn off the self, the day-to-day concerns, to propel us into focussing on something bigger and hard to comprehend.”[2]

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To be in the mountains is a blessing, yes it is hard work, but for many it is a place to experience a sense of pure intoxicating love, to be deeply connected spiritually to something beyond ourselves. Some would call this God, others the universe or a higher power, for me it is simply keeping company with Jesus. To see the love of God in creation is to see the giver in the gift.

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Memories of adventures on the trails do tend to fade a little, although isn’t it ironic that the most memorable days are the toughest days? We can all recall stories of bad weather, getting lost, feeling ill, more cold or windy than we expected, wearing the wrong kit, near misses. Why is this? Perhaps it is because mountains make us feel small, vulnerable and at the mercy of their power. As we get close to the end of our own resources we become much more alive to the power that surrounds us.

We become awestruck.

The Message bible version of a verse from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 5:3) puts it like this,

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

Thanks to Andrew Locking for permission to use his wonderful photographs in this blog.

[1] Michelle Ferrigno Warren, The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action (Oxford: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), p. 115.

[2] Lucy Jones, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need The Wild (Milton Keynes: Allen Lane, 2020), p. 79.

Autumn

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This evening’s run started off in the daylight and finished in the dark. The light held out for as long as it could.

I ran nearly 16km with 5 x 1km efforts in the middle at 3.35 per km pace. It was a hard session and although I still feel like running fast is very unnatural and not really flowing, I was pleased with it overall.

Autumn is a beautiful season as the photograph taken by Jemma shows. It joins the light to the dark. Over the last few days I have been aware of a string of people, all friends of ours who have had their own ‘autumn’ moments recently.

Lost jobs, worsening diagnoses, loss of loved ones – the commonality with all these is the speed at which darkness has threatened to overcome the light. ‘Normal’ life mobbed by fears and pressures.

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However, in each case we have seen the evidence of light. The light of Christ that will never be overcome by the darkness (John 1:5). These are stories of amazing courage, inspiring resilience, peace when there is usually anxiety, joy where there should be fear and laughter in place of tears.

When I try to run fast, it hurts (a lot), it feels overwhelming but experience tells me keep going. It will be ok.  That’s a trivial thing, but the witness of our dear friends isn’t, their experiences are inspiring us, we see Christ in them calling ‘keep going, it will be ok.’

 

Apologetics

This morning’s run on Ilkley Moor was wet and misty – atmospheric! 8 miles mainly along the ridge on familiar trails. Perfect for switching off and allowing the mind to wander.

I’ve recently begun a module at college, taught by Graham Cray, apologetics and mission. Defending and proposing the faith, fascinating stuff. We’ve looked at historical perspectives and the challenge of understanding local contexts. Yesterday at our church lunch club, a conversation arose about ‘God’. I had just joined a table of folks, including a new couple, and they were already sharing their experiences and stories. I listened to a few ideas being bounced around in the group, mainly worthy philosophical thoughts. Part of me wanted to pounce, with apologetic zeal, on the new couple. I didn’t, instead I opted to leave that to others on the table and continued with serving and clearing tables. It was good to meet this new couple, I hope they return and I get to talk to them again in the future. Perhaps by the end of the module my apologetic technique may be a bit sharper.

Running today I was reminded of a simple phrase. It was used in the context of coaching athletes but could be equally as true for apologists.

‘People don’t care what you know until they know you care.’

Serving and clearing tables could have been the best option after all?

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Well done Hope who ran her first cross country race of the season today. Northcliffe Park, Bradford filled with hundreds of children and lots of enthusiasm. Not too many over zealous parents instead a really encouraging atmosphere for everyone who took part.

Hope and her friends did really well in their race and I was so encouraged by them that I braved the rain and cold tonight with my own session. 10 miles including 4 x 1km efforts at 3.40 pace.

Tonight I stood on the shoulders of a couple of hundred enthusiastic young runners. Giants each one of them…Thank you!

One step at a time

I’m into my final year of studies at St Hild college. At the moment it feels like the finish is a long way off.

Running teaches you lots of things including at times ‘just take the next step’

This year I’ve returned to running, mainly on the trails, usually slowly with an occasional burst of effort.

I’ve tried a few races over the summer months, Otley 10, Ilkley Half and Burnsall 10.

One step at a time…