Into the Great Unknown

My husband grew up in the Green Mountains of Vermont. My first trip there in December a few years ago was the weekend he would propose to me. On the first night in town, after everyone had said goodnight, we drove the winding roads to the top of one hill to visit an old battlefield. There was no city light in sight and the hillside was covered with a fresh, deep blanket of snow. He parked the car and we began a slow walk up through the white. The silence of the night was surreal. No sound of highways. No voice echoing. Not even a bird cawing in the pines. There was no path. No footprints. Just the expanse of a night sky, our quiet boots crunching the snow beneath our feet. It was below zero. I remember that much. My breath swirled out and up to the sky almost seamlessly into the Milky Way. The stars felt innumerable and by the time we reached the top of the hill, the wonder (and cold air) seemed to steal every exhale from my lungs. We were surrounded by the black, tree-lined edges of the field and within an instant, I felt very, very small. I remember I told him how I felt a slight chill of terror from the dark.

“Someone could be there. Something could be in the dark, watching us,” I whispered. I felt very aware of how vulnerable I was. It was equally thrilling and terrifying. The history of the battlefield and the silence of the land. It was eerie and beautiful and everything I loved all at once.

He doesn’t remember this. He says he only remembers spinning the box with my engagement ring in his pocket, wondering if this was the moment he should drop down to one knee. I didn’t know that, though. I was juggling emotions of thrill and fear, wonder and worry, worship and humility.

We stared at the stars for a long time. It felt like hours, though in reality, it was probably only 30 minutes. But they were so bright. So clear. The silent dark loomed around us, yet with my arm linked in his, I felt completely safe at his side. We said little and searched for constellations, nearly knee deep in snow on the top of that battlefield under the breadth of heaven.

They say our world has a problem with light pollution. We can no longer see the stars the way our ancestors could. These ancient lights that once guided us by night, communicated directions, led sailors lost at sea, made man feel small and tiny within the universe…most of them are hidden from our sight, unless we seek to find them.

Author Paul Hawken said “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night, and we watch television.”

Instead of going out to star watch, we look at photos of them on Instagram. We no longer look to the stars for our perspective in the night. We are lit by the things from the earth.

During some of the most difficult seasons of my life and for the better part of my teenage years, I swung the lanterns of earth. By morning, I’d read Oswald Chambers. By night, I’d read Madeleine L’Engle. The Bible felt impossible. An amateur studying a map of the night sky. I needed something accessible and in layman’s terms. The Bible felt like neither of those things. So I grabbed devotionals to learn about the heavens. I made myself comfortable with the things and words of this earth, instead of stepping out into the dark, taking a deep breath to look at the stars themselves.

L’Engle, Cowman, Chambers, Spurgeon, and Shepherd all seemed to walk me through some of the darkest seasons of my life. When the Bible seemed too heavy to bear, or when scripture seemed intimidating and scary, I’d turn to them instead. I could understand a devotional. I had the time for one scripture. But to understand Romans? Definitely not.

When I joined a discipleship group a few years ago, I didn’t realize how much I’d be afraid of the darkness of what I didn’t know. I’d open my Bible and felt like a pilgrim in a land that wasn’t my own. The words felt foreign. The task was awkward and too big. The time it asked of me was too much. I’d leave it to the experts and because I was convinced my life had no room for adequate study, I was content with someone else’s understanding of scripture.

That was until I started to learn how to read the Bible; then something changed. It wasn’t as though mysteries suddenly unfolded before me. But something did happen when I realized that everything I looked for in my day to day was right there, under the surface of stories and names, pointing me to Christ. With the help of good teachers and the Holy Spirit, the words weren’t foreign. The task was necessary — I could understand it myself! The time was what was needed. Finally, after all this time, I was paying attention.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” wrote Mary Oliver. I think of the 100s of things that beg for my attention daily. My home. My children. My husband. My phone. My e-mail. My job. The dog, just to name a few. I know I only have so much time to give; only so much attention to spend. And if I let myself, I’ll talk myself out of real Bible reading because it takes time. It takes quiet. It takes attention, and even as those familiar books shout from their titles, it takes devotion.

Whether it’s time, convenience, lack of understanding, or fear of the dark, we know we can flip the light switch of a devotional or an article and read something to satisfy that craving quickly. A quick verse. An application. A prayer. Done. Done. Done. The equivalent of seeing an adventurer’s photo on Instagram, we’ll whisper something like “Wow, I wish I could do that.” And we’ll close the book of words from Oswald Chambers and think on it briefly while coffee sloshes around in our cup, hoping we’ve ticked the box of “quiet time” and done our due diligence as disciples. And yet, I wonder if one were to ask Charles Spurgeon how he should spend a brief five minutes of his day, given the choice between “Morning and Evening” or the Bible, I’m guessing it’d be an easy answer for him. Go to the source. Go into the dark of things you don’t know. Watch how the stars shine.

Granted, these quick quips got me through some drought years. It was life giving to read “It’s good indeed to give! Yet it is better still— O’er breadth, through length, down depth, up height, To trust HIS will!” from “Streams in the Desert.” I was buoyed by the faith and knowledge of others who could easily communicate scripture in a way that I could understand. These devotionals handed me the truth when I was drowning. But now that I see how beautiful it is to read the Bible myself, I pray I never forget how God invites me to sit in the expanse of his Word and understand it with His help.

Maybe we should feel the edges of our knowledge. We should look at the shadows of where we stand and be aware of how small we actually are. I don’t look at the night sky to make myself feel better and more impressive. The opposite occurs. When I look at the stars, I’m reminded of how happily insignificant I am to the greater world, galaxy, universe. Reading scripture itself, within the context of its pages, reminds me how I am just a “mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)

Jen Wilkin said in her book “Women of the Word,” — “The Bible does tell us who we are and what we should do, but it does so through the lens of who God is. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of self always go hand in hand.”

I don’t want to read a devotional that tells me how important and big my world is. I don’t want more earth-grown light. I want the ancient words. The living words. The lights that point toward where I should go. The glimpses in the Old Testament that show me Christ. The stories of the “great faith heroes” that “whisper his name” (as Sally Lloyd-Jones says in “The Jesus Storybook Bible”). The words of Christ. The encouragements and reprimands of the Apostles. Just as any other books, devotionals can be beautiful supplements but terrible substitutes.

My husband didn’t propose then, under a starry sky on a December night. He waited until the next morning, waking me early to hike into the woods before the sun rose. I was groggy and poorly dressed, wearing the Carhart of my in-laws and boots that were new to me. Engagement wasn’t on my mind; coffee and sleep were. That is until he dropped to one knee and asked me to be his wife. Surrounded by old pines and hickory trees, I cried like a baby. That moment of just us, forever preserved within my memory.

Perhaps this is a picture the greatest joy of actually getting into scripture itself. When you least expect it, wishing a bit you were back in bed and thinking that perhaps all of this tromping through the deep stuff isn’t worth it, you’re surprised with wonder all over again. You’ll find yourself overwhelmed with joy in the middle of new territory, amazed that you ever thought this work was a waste of time.