My trek to the edge of the mountains this summer came with hopes to clear my head a bit. It’s been a brutal past year-and-a-half. My primary relationship detonated, people got hurt – so many people – and the months since have felt like ongoing, prolonged triage. Who is tended to first? Who must wait for tending-to? Who cares for whom, when everyone’s bleeding? Only now does it seem the smoky billow rolled out by the explosion is beginning to dissipate – only just beginning – and I’m curious what the landscape will look like when it fully clears. When the haze lifts and all is exposed in the light of day, I wonder what will remain, what will have to be rebuilt, and what will have vanished.
On my first morning in Denver, I take breakfast to Forsberg Park, gazing out at a stunning view of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. One of the park signs points out that Red Rocks Amphitheatre is directly across the highway and, never having visited, I drive over. At the top of the arena, the view back east into the city is equally stunning, and I decide my new dream job is to serve drinks to concert goers at Red Rocks. This way I can be paid to spend my working hours 1) outdoors and 2) listening to music. The atmosphere is hazy but – being from west Texas – I assume it’s dust blowing in from, you know, a large nearby dusty area. There’s a desert somewhere in the general vicinity, right? The next morning, my AirBnB host mentions the culprit of the haze: there are wildfires raging two hours west of the city. She asks if I can smell the smoke.
A friend forwards me an essay by Henri Nouwen. Amid his thoughts on solitude, ministry and community, Nouwen – that sage, that prophet – writes: “Who am I? I am the beloved. That’s the voice Jesus heard when he came out of the Jordan River: ‘You are my beloved; on you my favor rests.’ Jesus says to you and to me that we are loved as he is loved. That same voice is there for you.” I let these words settle over me as I explore the city, chat with my quirky host, hike the residential hills on my morning walks, and wrestle with the heartaches of my life.
I’ve come with hopes to clear my head, but some of my motivation for this trip is about learning to trust myself more readily. I have spent most of my life leaning hard on others – carrying them with me like a security blanket, relying on them to help me steer through life, implicitly trusting their guidance. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve made my own decisions. I consider myself an out-of-the-box thinker. But I’ve often allowed myself to follow others’ meaningful advice about the next step on my path without really investigating if it’s what God wants for me. Initially, this seems easier – being surrounded by good-hearted, thoughtful humans who are gifted at listening, discerning, and imparting wisdom, it can be easier to accept their directions and avoid trusting one’s own intuition. If I accept their advice and follow their leading, I escape being at fault if something “goes wrong”. Figuring out what’s best for me – trusting myself – requires time, prayer, solitude, and faith in a Being I cannot see. It means following through on whatever decision I come to even when it makes others – or even my own self – uncomfortable. This is work. Acquiescing to someone else’s well-meant intentions creates much less discomfort (again, initially) than pushing back, questioning their advice, and nurturing one’s own relationship with God. I can easily slip into voluntarily, unconsciously, handing over my power. Now more than ever – due to both personal and global circumstances – it seems imperative that I learn how to hear and respond more deliberately to my own inner knowing, aka the voice of the Spirit aka God aka Love. This is intentional work, learning to trust myself. Learning how to shift from relying on parents, a partner, or a group of friends to chariot me through life to relying on God alone. Learning how to step onto the path God and I have discussed, sweaty, trembling, and exceedingly self-conscious. Learning how to accept – painfully – that sometimes others won’t understand or appreciate my path. This – this part of me who feels unsure about things like traveling alone, managing household bills, speaking up on behalf of marginalized communities, dyeing all my hair pink (and I mean every single strand) – is a part of me that will have to be rebuilt. The me who has trusted others to carry me all the way home needs to burn.
A new acquaintance texts, checking on me, asking if I’ve had any clarity, any direction, and I don’t know how to reply. I have particular questions I’ve been asking of God for months but no definitive answers yet. Then one evening, as I sit on the rooftop terrace looking up at the hazy sky, it rises out of the ash, like a stone chimney built long ago, the only thing that is truly clear, the only thing that will always remain, the only answer that really matters: I am God’s beloved; on me God’s favor rests. The question is, do I really, truly, deep-down believe it? Do you? If all is stripped away, do you believe it? If you lose the marriage (or the hope for one), if your children leave and never look back (or if you never bear the children you desire), if you’re one day standing in the unemployment line or living on the street, if your physical health deteriorates, if your friends pull away because they wonder if your misfortune is contagious and they can barely handle their own sorrows, if your typically stubborn pluck and determined resolve start to falter under the weight of all the grief – if all is stripped away, do you believe you still have value? Do I? Yet these words are what keep moving through my mind, like a flame in a brittle forest: I am God’s beloved; on me God’s favor rests.
As dusk approaches one evening, I stroll to a nearby neighborhood lake. Bikes are being pedaled, dogs are being walked, jazz is being played on a radio. Standing at the water’s edge, I watch the neon pink sun descend behind a blue-gray amorphous cloud. I’m still not sure what I’ll find as the smoke clears from my life. But I’m doing my best to trust – trust Love, trust myself, trust the idea that beauty truly can spring from ash. I’m doing my best to believe I am God’s beloved.
With time, new things will germinate. Forests will grow back and hillsides will replenish. While I appreciate the tranquility of my moment at the edge of the water, I know the exquisite sky before me comes at a price. That massive cloud isn’t water vapor condensing in the atmosphere, but a far-reaching plume of smoke. There are fires burning in the mountains.