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Too grand to handle

Too grand to handle

I’ve never been in an emptier place.

Denali National Park is six million acres of wilderness. Only one gravel road runs through it. Two years ago, a high section of the road across a rock glacier slumped – was carried away by the sliding glacier – leaving half of the park unattainable to the hordes of tourists who previously packed into park buses to make the 90-mile, end-to-end drive.

And yet, here I am in that unreachable half, having flown in a small plane to a private camp as a guest of a good friend. It’s like being given a backstage pass to one of the greatest concerts of nature in the world. Looming on stage is the tallest mountain in North America, still snow-clad and majestically large.

Majesty is a concept that I’ve been living with while here. As I watch the clouds crawl across the face of Denali, I’m struck by how majesty, by its nature, is slow. Unhurried. (Prince Charles didn’t jog down the aisle to get his crown.) Even timeless. The mountains exist.  Weather swirls around them. Seasons come and go. They stand unfazed.

It’s not just the mountains that impress, though. The land is also vast – so vast that one must look long and hard to find anything moving across it. Day after day, we go out, binoculars in hand, just hoping to glimpse some mammal or bird. I quip to the owner of the camp, “You either need more wildlife or less Alaska.”

That’s not a bad thing, though. (Yes, I would have loved a closer view of a grizzly. But not too close!) Feeling unessential to an immense landscape, an afterthought to a boundless ecosystem, is humbling. And healthy.

The life of mortals is like grass,
    they flourish like a flower of the field;

 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
    and its place remembers it no more.  (Ps. 103:15-16)

This building powerfully illustrates that thought. We drive as far as we could into the mountains, halted by fallen stones on the road, then hike up to a visitor center – usually swarming with people, now closed until they build a bridge over the slump to reopen the road. It’s eerie here, almost post-apocalyptic in its emptiness. Only ground squirrels greet us.

Scripture often draws a contrast between the majesty of God and the impermanence of man. The more we see his eternal nature, the more we cry, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4) To be such an unimportant intruder in this wide landscape brings that home to me. Nature here will continue just the same when I leave.

That heart cry of David is exactly the right response to majesty. The gulf between God’s eternal, unchanging nature and our brief flare of existence should make us wonder why he should even spare a momentary thought toward us.

Yet, as the next verse in Ps. 103 tell us, his eternal nature is not distant and foreboding like Denali. It is intensely personal:

But from everlasting to everlasting
    the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
    and his righteousness with their children’s children (Ps. 103:17)

We are not alone in the landscape. The words from the Isaac Watts hymn come to mind:

While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God, art present there.

God loves his creation, for he called it good. But his intense focus of love is on his people, those who come through that daunting recognition of his greatness and their ensuing smallness to an experience of overwhelming love.

It makes me appreciate anew that Jesus opened the road, bridging the gap between a holy God and his fallen people through his death on our behalf.

Making God’s majesty approachable.

Great and majestic God, how small we are before you! You are the same yesterday, today and forever. And yet, amazingly, you love us. Give us reminders of that great gap that Jesus bridged through his death for us.

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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