A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to do one of the coolest and hardest things I’ll likely ever do. I joined three other gentlemen from our church—Shaun Kell, Doug Thompson, and Troy Tarpley—in a rim-to-rim run/hike of the Grand Canyon.
It’s hard to put into words the experience of simply gazing over the rim of the canyon and seeing the expanse of an inverted mountain (it’s roughly 12,000 feet from the rim to the canyon floor). But to go down into this expanse and see it up close was another thing altogether.
For instance, what appears from the top to be the bottom of the canyon is really only a plateau about halfway down. The canyon goes into steep decline at the level known as the “Redwall Limestone,” with the rest of the descent hidden from view from the top.
Likewise, from the bottom of the canyon, standing on the banks of the Colorado River the giant cliffs overhead appear to be the rim, and yet they only rise about 3,000—just a quarter of the full canyon depth.
The scale boggles the mind—or as Shaun put it, “bottles” the mind; it makes words hard to come by and even stifles the imagination.
What does it mean to put one’s hand on a rock that is 1.8 billion years old—half the age of the earth?
Or to soak one’s feet in the river whose constant motion over the past 5 to 6 million years is responsible for the whole thing, slowly pulling away bits of rock and sand, at a pace utterly ambivalent to human life?
It’s no wonder the canyon has been set aside as a holy place by the Hopi people, and other indigenous groups who have made the canyon their home for thousands of years.
Even within Christinanity there has long been a notion of the “Scripture of nature,” or the belief that the creator is best known through the creation. That the natural world has much to tell us about God and ourselves.
So it is with respect to this tradition of the “Scripture of nature” that I offer the following observations and reflections on our time in the canyon:
It is good and right, at least on occasion, to be reminded of our smallness. There are certainly times when we must be reminded that the God of creation loves us and knows us by name. But other times it is necessary to be reminded that against the scale of the universe we are but dust. The truth of human life is found in the balance of these two realities.
There is beauty to be found even in loss. We think of beauty most often as having to do with some notion of wholeness or completion. The canyon stands as a gaping hole cutting a plateau in half through the displacement of sand and rock. It is a wound, and yet it is utterly beautiful, and rich with life. The same can be true of our losses and our wounds, with time and reflection.
Change most often happens not by singular transcendent acts, but through small, consistent movement over a period of time. Sometimes for a long period of time! This is as true in social movements as it is in our own spiritual lives. Discipleship is, in the words of Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction.” It is a series of small choices, small habits, rooted in compassion and fairness and generosity and grace that over time amount to a way of living.
The Grand Canyon is evidence that this slow change over time is how mountains are literally moved.