February 19, 2008

Woods and Other Unexplored Things
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Recently, I’ve had conversations with two different people, who are fairly new to the area, about nearby hiking trails. In these conversations, I’ve reminisced about some of my memorable hikes. There was the time two other leaders and I took about a dozen seven-to-nine-year-old boys on their first hike, in which we met a rattlesnake on the trail and traveled over nine miles. And then, Judy and I once slept under the stars at DeVore Campground, with no other campers around, and listened to some wild critters sniff around us in the middle of the night. Now I have on my desk a copy of Trails of the Angeles, on hiking options in the San Gabriel Mountains, and I’m feeling a mixture of nostalgia and longing. My mind is alongside a waterfall up an obscure canyon.

The other day Judy was fantasizing about what part of the world she’d like to visit. She narrowed things down to Europe, but was torn between France, Germany and England. Visit them all, you may say. But she was also agonizing about how frustrating it would be to get a taste of a place like Paris, and not be able to stay there long enough to digest it. How long would be long enough? A week? A month? A year? You’d probably still feel that you were on the surface of a place like Paris.

During my college days, I had my first serious encounter with poetry. Some of the poems that moved me then still have that effect on me. Yet there are so many other poets and so many other poems I haven’t begun to look into, it makes me a little sad to realize that I’ll probably never explore much deeper into my dark continent of poetry.

One poet I like is Robert Frost. And one of his simplest poems expresses well the series of reflections I’m trying to share in this article:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

You’d have to be a Vermonter, like Frost, to become romantic over a snow storm, but every person from every climate and culture can fully identify with his closing lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

We can probably all think of some lovely, dark, deep woods we’ve longed to explore. And we know the frustration of being called away by life’s responsibilities, our “promises to keep.â€?

But the God who created all the explored and unexplored wonders of our universe also created human beings, in his image, with the capacity and desire to experience his wonders. Can it be possible that this life is all; that we are destined, whoever we are and however vast has been our learning and experience, to die unfulfilled? The universal human belief in an after-life, where we will experience God and his creation in-depth, is a testimony that this longing is part of being a person, of being in God’s image.

Some people may dismiss this belief in an after-life as wishful thinking. Christians however, believe that God sent Jesus into the world to assure us that this human intuition is true:

“I go to prepare a place for you . . . . I will come again and take you unto myself, that where I am, you may be also.â€? (John 14:2-3)

Jesus’ disciple John later wrote about this expectation:

“We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.â€? (1John 3:2)

If we “see him as he is,â€? perhaps we will also be able to see his creation as it truly is, to experience all the wonders he has built into the glorious universe that reflects him.