Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Diving Deep

Posted: June 3, 2013 by Jim Killam in books, nature, safety

shadow-diversJust finished “Shadow Divers,” by Robert Kurson, about the discovery and eventual identification of a World War II German U-boat wreck off the coast of New Jersey. The true story centers on two divers who take insane risks, and sacrifice much, to solve a mystery and conquer a challenge.

It’s a fantastic book, lent to me by a friend who understands why people, especially men, gravitate to these kinds of stories.

Near the end, diver John Chatterton reflects on what drives him to repeatedly risk diving deep shipwrecks. It’s not about recovering souvenirs, or identifying a long-lost sub.

“When things are easy a person doesn’t really learn about himself,” he says. “It’s what a person does at the moment of his greatest struggle that shows him who he really is. Some people never get that moment.”

Chatteron’s moment just happened to involve scuba tanks, a drysuit and a fantastic discovery. For others, it’s running marathons. Climbing Everest. Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Or even, quitting your job because you know you were made for more than this.

In a culture that places supreme value on safety and comfort, men find a need to test themselves. I’m convinced that God wired us for adventure and that most of the time we settle for far less. If we can’t find adventure in our careers, we look for it in our leisure time. What we find can be temporarily thrilling … but it’s usually not about the hike, or the climb, or the run. There’s something much deeper going on, and it’s worth taking a risk to find it.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” That’s often attributed to Henry David Thoreau. It’s actually a mashup of a Thoreau passage and a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes … but it doesn’t make the thought any less powerful.

May we break free of that quiet desperation, dive deep and discover a story worth telling.

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(Warner Brothers)

(Warner Brothers)

We got a GPS this past Christmas. We call it Mildred. If we’re going somewhere and we need directions, we just type our destination and hit “Go.” And Mildred sets to work, bouncing signals off a satellite and back, calculating the perfect route (usually) and then – the best part – speaking that route to us, turn by turn.

My friend Lincoln and I took Mildred to Southern California a few weeks ago, where she performed like a champ, guiding us through the freeway system. A few times when we couldn’t get to the exit ramp because of heavy traffic, we’d miss a turn. And Mildred would simply gather herself, recalibrate and tell us the new directions. Once in a while, she would get confused momentarily – especially on cloverleafs, where one road was directly above another – but we could always count on her to figure things out.

Sometimes I wish my life had a GPS, where I could plug in a destination and receive turn-by-turn instructions from Mildred’s firm, confident computer voice. Instead, life usually seems like I’m stuck in a tunnel and Mildred can’t find the satellite. I’m left to take my best guess about the next turn. Sometimes that proves to be the right path. Sometimes I have to recalibrate.

That can be frustrating when all I want is clarity. But then I remember: No great adventure was ever a sure thing. What makes it an adventure is risk – risk of getting lost, risk of failure, risk of letting a lot of people down, even risk of death. The bad thing about a GPS is, it can turn a journey into a boring list of instructions. Sure, you don’t get lost. But in the process, the adventure gets lost with it.

I tend to wander, and I tend not to follow instructions (just ask my wife). I’ve been lost many times, without a map or GPS: In a forest preserve two miles from our house. On a remote national park trail as the sun was setting. In a ridiculously bad neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where I could only think of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold character. Even in Beirut, Lebanon, where we’d wandered much too close to a Hezbollah rally.

Each of those situations became a good story we still talk about – usually in the context of how dumb I was for not carrying a map or GPS. Point taken, if we’re talking about a hike or a drive.

But when we’re talking about life decisions, then I’m back to that adventure thing – how it requires an ever-growing trust in someone I can’t see. Brennan Manning writes in “Ruthless Trust” that he believes that trusting God is, in fact, what it means to love him.

“Why does our trust offer such immense pleasure to God?” Manning writes. “Because trust is the pre-eminent expression of love. Thus, it may mean more to Jesus when we say, ‘I trust you,’ than when we say, ‘I love you.’”

Those words help. I wrestle with doubts about my faith all the time. The bottom line, though, is that my wife and I have loved God enough to trust him, and to take a big risk, not knowing where the road leads. We’ve sold our nice home and I’ve left a comfortable career – certainties in life – in order to pursue something crazy, something great. We have no idea how this story will turn out.

I watched “Argo” last night, the Oscar-winning film about the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Ben Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, is laying out his crazy-sounding plan to the diplomats: They’ll pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. The six are less than convinced. Mendez tells them it’s their best hope.

That’s why I’m here,” he says. “I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. I get people out and I’ve never left anyone behind. I’m asking you to trust me.”

Sometimes, a film that has nothing to do with God can bowl me over with a God moment. Right now, if our lives were a movie, we’d be at that critical point where the audience isn’t sure whether the heroes are going to make it.

And I can sense God saying to me the exact words Mendez used.

I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. … I’m asking you to trust me.

We want an airtight plan with guarantees. Or at least we think we do. God says, “Trust me.”

Do I love him enough to do that? I want to.

Manning writes:

The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”

Faith in a Drought

Posted: October 9, 2012 by Jim Killam in disillusionment, doubt, fear, missions, nature

A stiff, cold wind blew in yesterday. It took our spectacular fall color and whipped most of it to the ground. That’s a harsh reminder of one season ending and a long, cold Illinois winter perhaps starting early.

The cold wind also bookends a terrible drought year, when it was tough for anything to grow and thrive, and when dirt and dust covered just about everything around here.

For my wife and me, the drought extended into most of life. It’s been an especially dry season of raising support for our upcoming missions work. With a couple of notable exceptions, possibilities that had looked promising simply dried up and blew away. I worked hard all summer and, like the farmers around here, I saw little payoff for all of that toil. Just a lot of indifference, outright rejection or simply being ignored. Plus, unlike the farmers, we didn’t have crop insurance. If God doesn’t come through, we are sunk.

Didn’t I just sacrifice a career? Didn’t we just sacrifice our home and comfort, to follow God’s clear calling on our lives? Aren’t we living in a shed? And the result so far is … frustration and disappointment? Really?

A drought becomes a vivid reminder that so much of life, and even our ability to sustain life, is beyond our control and incredibly fragile. A dry season turns us to God in a way that abundance does not. It’s human nature to tell God “please” a lot more than “thank you.” Our need for him, and the fallacy of self-reliance, becomes so much more obvious in a drought.

A drought favors plants with deep and healthy root systems. It favors good soil rather than shallow, rocky soil (Matthew 13:6, the Parable of the Sower – “But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”) Things that we relied on, but were far more fragile than we realized, get stripped away. Only those things with the deepest roots survive – and even they sustain some damage.

So, what was stripped away for us in this year of spiritual drought? First, our nice home. Then our comfortable income. Both of those were voluntary steps of faith, and though we didn’t say it, I think we expected a reward. Instead, our modest savings dwindled. We lost comfort and convenience – the ability to simply take a shower, or cook a meal, without planning. We lost confidence in our abilities to restore that comfort and convenience. Pride in accomplishments evaporated. All of that admiration received when I quit my job to follow a calling? A distant memory now. Ultimately, we lost confidence that, in response to our steps of faith, God would act when and how we wanted him to act.

And now, 10 months into our spiritual drought, what remains? What has grown improbably?

Our faith looks different today. Tired of comfort and safety, we willingly (if not always enthusiastically) ceded those things. There is no more predictability to life, and that can be frustrating. That sense of adventure and excitement we were counting on does show up more, but it isn’t constant. It’s sometimes punctuated by serious doubt, as in “What did we just do?” And this after some previous dark seasons where hope seemed only a hollow promise.

We have learned, far more vividly than ever before, what it looks like to rely on God for absolutely everything – how, when comfort and convenience are stripped away, God becomes more visible.

But, while visible, God also can be frustratingly silent in a drought. Often, our cries for help seem to go no further than the ceiling. We found ourselves with the unspoken feeling that God owed us success in raising our support after we took such a big step of faith. And the “reward” was … days and weeks where no one – and I do mean no one – responded to my letters, phone calls and emails about the calling God has given me. (Do you know how discouraging it is for missionaries when people won’t even return a phone call or a personal email? Even a “no” is better than being ignored.) Meanwhile, bugs, vermin and bad smells remind us that we are indeed living in a farm shed. What once felt like an adventure is now a lot harder and less fun.

But we cling to God anyway, because we’ve received a calling and we have nowhere else to go. Like the Spanish explorer Cortez, we have burned the ships. There is no turning back, and there are no guarantees of safety ahead. I think of a line from Pete Sommer’s book, “Getting Sent”: “The road we are sent on is not smooth, but it goes Godward.”

And I start to realize … maybe this is what faith really looks like.

What in the World are We Looking For?

Posted: September 30, 2012 by Jim Killam in nature, the poor

The Celtic spiritual term, thin places, refers to where the veil between heaven and earth seems thinner, more transparent.

These may be physical places or particular circumstances. They’re different for everyone. But whether we realize it or not, we all look for them. Sometimes we seek desperately, without a clue as to what we’re really looking for.

When John Denver wrote the line, “Talk to God and listen to the casual reply,” he was talking about thin places.

So was Geoff Moore in his song “Out Here”:

I’m high above the timberline
Where the sky and mountains meet
Up where the air is very thin
Somehow it’s easier to breathe

These are a few thin places for me:

  • Hiking along the edge of the Continental Divide in Montana. Being enveloped in God’s grandeur.
  • A really fun wedding feast, because it foreshadows the ultimate wedding feast.
  • Any close encounter with wildlife: a grizzly bear, a moose, a bald eagle.
  • And surprisingly, after great tragedy. My wife and I spend a week working at an orphanage in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Amidst unfathomable pain, surrounded by kids missing assorted limbs, we saw Jesus more clearly than we ever have before or since.

I believe people are wired to seek God. When we encounter thin places, we’ve come a few steps closer. And that is why we explore.

What are your examples of thin places?

Hiking Toward Our Fears

Posted: June 28, 2012 by Jim Killam in fear, fortress, nature

Montana’s Glacier National Park is my favorite place to hike — largely because of the stunning natural beauty everywhere you look. But it’s also because you never know what you’re going to see – maybe mountain goats, or a bull moose, or a herd of bighorn sheep, or a black bear or even a grizzly.

There’s a certain risk to hiking in Glacier: You could die. People do die, in fact. You could fall off a cliff, or drown in a raging stream. You could get hopelessly lost and freeze to death on the side of a mountain. Or, most prominently, you could get mauled and eaten by the aforementioned grizzly.

My wife, Lauren, and I were talking the other day about some of our hiking experiences in Glacier. We’ve had to get past some fears just to set out on those trails. But oh, the rewards. We’ve stood atop the Continental Divide, looking down at a chain of lakes stretching all the way to the plains. We’ve hiked alongside glaciers, their summer melt cascading ribbon-like waterfalls thousands of feet below. We’ve witnessed the most stunning sunsets we’ll ever see this side of heaven.

Sometimes we were genuinely scared. Once we spotted a huge grizzly about 300 yards below us and near the trail, which followed a dry creek bed. We’d have to cross that spot, and no one else was around. So we waited a few minutes, hoping the bear would pass. Then we said a quick prayer for safety, made lots of noise and readied our can of bear spray — super-powerful pepper spray that has been proven effective at preventing attacks when used properly.

Thankfully we didn’t see the bear again as we hiked along the creek bed. It might have been a hundred yards away by then … or just on the other side of the next willow bush. We’ll never know.

Just a year ago, we were hiking the Grinnell Lake trail, passing through a narrow, wooded area with a lake on one side and a mountainside on the other. Suddenly we heard people yelling about 50 yards ahead. That likely meant one thing.

As we approached, a group of seniors stood on the trail facing a mother grizzly and her two yearling cubs, which were almost as large as she was. The bears were about 20 yards from the people, making their way down the trail toward them.

We and the others moved as far as we could off the trail and against the mountainside to clear a way for the bears to pass. We made as much noise as we could – shouting, banging stuff, blowing whistles – because that’s what the rangers tell you to do to deter bears.

I’d like to say I stood courageously in front of Lauren, bear spray ready, protecting her and the rest of the group. That would have been very noble. Actually I was shooting pictures while Lauren blew her whistle and aimed the bear spray. The bears lumbered past, coming within about 20 feet of us and not appearing to care that a group of hikers stood nearby making a racket not unlike my high school marching band.

We would never knowingly approach bears. There’s calculated risk of hiking in a place like Glacier, and then there’s full-on idiocy (for a good example, watch the film, “Grizzly Man”). But encountering those three wondrous creatures up close, by chance, was the experience of a lifetime.

The hike itself was stunningly beautiful – at the end, you reach Grinnell Lake, where dozens of waterfalls cascade into it from the glacier above. Had I given in to my fears, I would have missed all of that while kneeling at the altar of safety and security.

It’s not that we would go into a potentially dangerous situation blindly – like the hikers I saw wearing flipflops and listening to their iPods. You assess the risks, equip yourself with protective items you might need, and you set out. Sometimes you go with a group. Sometimes you go with an experienced guide.

This summer, Lauren and I are in the midst of taking the biggest risk of our lives. I’ve left a safe and secure job in order to follow a calling to full-time missions work as a journalist. Trusting God has taken on a whole new meaning. We’ve sold our house and are living temporarily in a 250-square-foot, converted shed. Even when our financial support is finally raised, life is going to be hard. And now, out of the blue, we’ve been presented with the opportunity to move to Costa Rica and base our new ministry from there.

No guarantees. Just one step of faith after another, each one larger than the last. Safety? It’s overrated and over-prayed for. Predictability? Gone. This is simply about following our trusted Guide’s directions. It’s about stepping onto a trail, knowing danger could lurk just around the next bend, and being OK with that.

Trails like that often lead you to a place more beautiful than you could ever imagine.

To Boldly Go …

Posted: July 15, 2011 by Jim Killam in history, nature
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Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my boyhood was dominated by news about space. America was making good on John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s.  I remember watching the live TV broadcast July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong hopped down that last ladder rung from the Lunar Module to the dusty moon surface. His historic line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The moon landing was Apollo 11, and that’s the one everyone remembers. But it was the Apollo 8 mission, in December 1968, that blazed the trail. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders became the first humans ever to leave earth’s orbit.

And as they came into orbit around the moon, they were the first humans to witness and photograph an Earthrise: the entire globe coming into view, from the vantage point of a completely other world. Think about the significance of that moment.

No one has seen an Earthrise since December 1972, the final Apollo moon mission. It’s been almost 39 years since anyone left Earth’s orbit. Cost concerns and the Vietnam War ended Apollo several missions earlier than planned. And now, with the postponement of a Mars mission, it’s going to be an awfully long time before anyone does it again.

It’s hard to believe that, in an 11-year stretch from 1961 to 1972, men reached space, then reached the moon … and then just stopped going where no man had gone before.

In one sense, the 1960s space race was about the Cold War and beating the Russians. But, in a broader sense, it was about the basic human desire to explore the unknown.

As the final space shuttle launched last week, signaling the beginning of a long break in America’s space ambitions, a lot of us felt a little sad. A few of our astronauts will still hop rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station, but it’s not the same. Space exploration has become space commuting. It’s like an ocean liner never leaving site of shore.

Avoidance of risk and avoidance of adventure, because they cost a lot (and I’m not talking just about money), is a way of life that snags too many people, Christians included. In “Dare to Desire,” John Eldredge wrote:

“God has rigged the world so that it only works when we embrace risk as the theme of our lives. … All attempts to find a safer life, to live by the expectations of others, just kill the soul in the end. That’s not how we find life.”

Here’s hoping that we go back to space and that we reach Mars and beyond. God has wired us for exploration and adventure. Those slogan writers for The North Face apparel company get it: We’ve lost something as a human race, spiritually, when we stop exploring.

Wild Kingdom

Posted: October 11, 2010 by Jim Killam in books, nature
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My wife and I just spent a long weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park and the adjacent town of Estes Park, Colo. Those two entities represent quite a study in contrasts. The park, even on a crowded weekend like this, is vast wilderness where solitude is in great supply. It’s not a remote wilderness on the order of Yellowstone or Glacier, but it’s still pretty good. In the spectacular-but-brief autumn, the aspen leaves turn a dazzling gold and the park’s elk herds come down to the meadows for rut, or mating season.

Estes Park is where everyone stays when they visit the park, and it’s everything you’d expect in a tourist trap. The brochures say 3 million people visit Estes Park every year. They were all downtown on Saturday buying T-shirts and fudge. It was the annual Elk Fest, one of the busiest weekends of the year.  By early afternoon, thousands of tourists had already done the perfunctory drive through the eastern side of the park, and now they were back to the familiar noise of cars, cell phones and throngs of people. There were so many people in some of the shops, you literally could not take a step.

This was anything but peaceful, and soon we escaped back to the park. The rest of that day and Sunday, we enjoyed the overwhelming quiet of the vast Rocky Mountain wilderness. During the last two hours of daylight Sunday, we sat along a roadside and watched a drama quietly play out about 100 yards away, in a meadow with Long’s Peak as a backdrop. It was more of a chess match, really, between a young bull elk and an older, larger bull. The young bull – let’s call him Steve – showed up in the meadow with a harem of 10 cows (female elk). Soon, the older bull – we’ll call him Larry – showed up on the same meadow to graze with 14 of his own cows. Among sex-crazed bulls, the name of the game is intimidation. Larry slowly walked just close enough to Steve for Steve to know not to mess with him. Then Larry gradually herded 4 of Steve’s cows away and into his harem.

Larry sends Steve on his way, alone and defeated.

If you’re keeping score at home, that makes it Larry 18, Steve 6. Steve and his remaining cows wandered close to the road, where about 20 people and their cars had now gathered to quietly (almost reverently) watch. This is where Steve, if he were smart, would have known when to fold ’em, and been on his way with his 6 cows.

But no. Steve gathered his harem about 75 yards from Larry’s. Then 50 yards. The older, stronger bull turned, annoyed, and sounded a short bugle blast. Steve got the message, and retreated to a back corner of the meadow. And slowly, over the next 30 minutes, Larry herded away Steve’s remaining 6 cows. Larry 24, Steve 0. Checkmate. Old, strong and patient had just schooled young and impulsive. Steve retreated even farther back into the meadow, sat in the grass alone and sulked.

As this had slowly played out, a few people had stopped their cars, taken a few pictures and left again. They might have gotten a nice photo, but they missed the story. Watching this drama play out, live, was better than any National Geographic program.

God feels very close in these kinds of moments, and I feel very small – like his creation is quietly and confidently declaring its wildness and its majesty. I understand the importance of community … but it’s good to strike a balance between that and quiet solitude. We need one to appreciate the other. And we need both, to better understand God’s character and creativity.

Philip Yancey writes of a similar experience in his book, “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?” Frustrated at his lack of quality prayer during a silent retreat, he hiked into a Rocky Mountain meadow and suddenly found himself in the company of 147 elk.

“After a while the very placidity of the scene began to affect me. The elk had not noticed my presence and I simply became part of their environment, taking on their own rhythms. … An elk does not have to work at having a quiet mind; it feels content standing in a field all day with its fellow elk, chewing grass. A lover does not have to work at attending to the beloved. I prayed for, and in a few fleeting moments received, that kind of absorbed attention to God. …

“I became more convinced than ever that God finds ways to communicate to those who truly seek him, especially when we lower the volume of the surrounding static.”