Last week I shared about our trip down into the Grand Canyon; this week I want to share about one more thing I learned in the Canyon, something I can’t seem to stop thinking about.
During the seven hour drive from Phoenix to the Northern Rim of the Canyon, our starting place for our hike, I was not a happy camper. I was wedged between my husband, whose frame took up a seat and a half (that translates as his seat plus half of my seat), and a precious young woman from Atlanta who was also a part of our trip. She was great about my continual drifting over into her seat, but it didn’t lessen the feeling of continual discomfort from the seat belt buckle wedged in my lower back or the cramped position of my body or knees.
By hour five, I was done. Canyon or no canyon, take me back to the hotel; no view is worth this middle-seat-wedged-ride. But about that time, our driver, a woman we nicknamed “Google” because of the unbelievable stash of information stored in her head about anything and everything Arizona, piped up about the surrounding scenery.
We left modern civilization about hour four of the drive, and the last three hours were spent making our way through deserts, plateaus, sandy rocks, Native American Indian reservations, and…forests. The closer we got the Canyon, the more trees we saw. Apparently, the desert had bloomed.
As we wove our way along the road, Pat pointed out burned patches in the forest scattered throughout the line of trees. Acres of the forest were scorched and charred, the trees pointing like black arrows towards the blue sky. (How I had not noticed the blackened trees before she pointed them out remains a mystery; perhaps it was the seat belt sticking in my side and my husband’s leg that kept traveling over into MY part of the seat.)
We asked if there had been a forest fire, and her answer is still something I am pondering: “No, Forest Rangers purposely set those trees on fire; it’s a technique they use called a Controlled Burn.”
She went on to explain that a controlled burn is a way to control the growth of the forest. What the Forest Service discovered after years of promoting the Smoky Bear campaign, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” and snuffing out every smoldering ash pile or lightening strike that occurred, they found that the forest was suffering. The forest actually needs fire to grow.
When Rangers light controlled burns in certain sections of the forest, the fire does two things. Number one, it reduces fuel buildup and consumes the undergrowth of the trees, things like leaf litter, dropped branches, and small scrub brushes, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a more serious, hotter fire coming and wiping out the forest in its entirety.
Number two, controlled burning is what certain types of pine trees actually need to grow. And I quote (I looked this up just to make sure Google knew what she was talking about), “Controlled burning stimulates the germination of some desirable forest trees, thus renewing the forest. Some cones are serotinous, meaning they require heat from fire to open cones to disperse seeds.”
Let that sink in for just a moment. Certain trees actually require heat from fire to open their cones to disperse their seeds. No fire, no growth. No fire, no seed dispersion. No fire, no future life of the forest.
Jesus says this in John 12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Left to our own devices, we don’t do much dying. We like living. Breathing. Status Quo. Ease. Comfort. Wealth. Health.
But that’s not how a forest grows, and it’s not how a life grows either. Both forests and human lives take fire to disperse their seeds. So what does God do in His graciousness in our lives to help us along in our growth? He sets fires. Or, more accurately, He lights Controlled Burns.
If you want to know and understand the areas where God is doing the most work in your life, where He is helping to stimulate the most growth, look no further than the controlled burns in your own heart, your family, and the lives of those you hold dear.
Personally speaking, He has used fiery trials in my life to burn out more undergrowth, leaf litter, and scrub brushes, than I would care to admit. The fires He sets have burned up large portions of dross in my life – desires that were not rightly centered on Him, sinful patterns of anger, control, covetousness, and self-pity – and the ashy piles that remain have been the fertilizer for much future growth, deep growth, true growth, and life-bearing fruit.
The fires He has set have moved me from pride, arrogance, and independence into more reliance upon His Word, His Promises, His Presence, and His Hand. And the fires He has set have released seeds of life into my own personal journey, the lives of my children and husband, and the lives of those around me as I have surrendered in trust and let the flames do their deadly work.
Friends, I say this with utmost confidence and absolute faith: every fire every believer has ever walked through is a Controlled Burn no matter how hot or out of control the flames may feel. He never allows the flames to get hotter than that which He knows we can stand. He never allows us to be consumed by the flame just for the sake of suffering. It is always with a greater purpose in mind – our growth.
If you are in the middle of a fiery furnace right now, know this one thing: He is walking in the flames right along with you. He is aiding and strengthening you in the midst of the flames, giving you a testimony for a watching world of the faithfulness of your God. And He will not waste one single flame. Everything that is burned up belonging to our sin and our flesh, He turns into heavenly treasure, into eternal reward as we surrender it into His Hands. And every ash pile we see scattered around the edges of our lives is used for rich fertilizer to stimulate growth in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
Take courage in the fires and hope in the flames. Our God is a jealous God, and His love is like a flame of fire, burning up everything and anything that stands in the way of complete trust, complete surrender, and true growth. I will close with this verse, food for thought to meditate on and treasure in our hearts today: “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (Song of Songs 8:6).
Let the fires in your life stand as proof as His burning, consuming love. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Let the fires burn.
Call us crazy, but Jason and I decided to do something a little unconventional to celebrate thirteen years of marriage. We decided we wanted to hike the Grand Canyon – Rim to Rim. Forget comfortable hotels, pool lounging, or romantic dinners overlooking a sun-specked ocean. Instead, think tent. Sleeping bag. Plastic, inflatable air mattress that squeaks every time you move. Compost toilets (at least it wasn’t a hole in the ground), no shower for four days, red dirt stuck to my legs, feet, and every pore of my skin, and rocks in my shoes. I have to admit, when our guide handed me my thirty-five pound pack to lug up onto my shoulders and our driver, the last sign of comfort and civilization sped away, I thought, “I take it back! Put me back in the car! What in the world have I done?!”
But over the next four days, my city-numbed heart became alive once again to the glory of God as we trekked across the canyon. In the dead of night, staring up at a pitch-black sky streaked with the silver of stars, constellations, and the Milky Way galaxy, my heart was reminded of how small we really are. And in the light of the day, looking up and out at the red-painted cliffs of the canyon with the Bright Angel River rushing past, I was reminded of how big God really is. And my heart was filled with awe.
The “Rim to Rim” route we hiked along with thousands of other visitors each year is actually a small side canyon that weaves its way into the main canyon, eventually depositing its hikers, runners, and mule-riders onto the main South Rim, covering a distance of approximately 24 miles. In my limited understanding, I thought we were going to conquer the main “Rim to Rim” route of the canyon, beginning at its starting point on the eastern end and traversing its entire length, ending up at the western tip. Wrong. The entire length of the canyon, the true “Rim to Rim” route, covers a distance of 277 river miles, meaning the miles measured by the distance of the mighty Colorado River, a distance that is further than the mileage between Houston and Dallas. Those miles do not include the many small, side canyons that split off and eventually spill out into main corridor of the Grand Canyon.
Because of my limited knowledge, the sheer size of the canyon caught me off guard and completely overwhelmed me at times. It lives up to its name in every sense of the word – it is Grand. And it leaves one in awe – awe at the awesomeness of the canyon and the One who made it and holds it all together with His Word (Colossians 1:16, 17).
On our last full day in the Canyon, after we had reached our campsite and unshouldered our packs (you can’t imagine how glad I was at the end of every day to take that thing off), we walked another mile and a half down the Tonto West Trail to a place called Panorama Point. I can honestly say that the entire four days and thirty something miles we covered was worth this one view. It not only put the Canyon into perspective but all of life into perspective. It took one’s breath away in its sheer scope, size, and vastness and left one full of awe. I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever used the word “awesome” correctly until standing at the top of Panorama Point. Our guide shared that many people get to this point and simply burst into tears. There simply are no words to describe the palette of majesty at the tip of this point.
Standing at the edge of Panorama Point, I was reminded of things I do not always remember in the smallness of my day to day routine at 1313 Mickey Way. I remembered that God is not someone I dictate demands to – He gives them, and I take them. I remembered that my smallness is not something I can fight against or pretend does not exist. It simply is. I am a speck on a timeline, a momentary fleck of life on a line that stretched on long before I arrived and that will continue long after I die. I remembered that God’s Voice is continually speaking, creating, and forming order from chaos, carving canyons, splitting rocks, and directing the flow of forceful rivers. And my job is not to try to control my life, my seasons, my relationships, or my days, it is simply to surrender and submit to the One is speaking.
I took only my small pocket Bible, my journal, and two thin books with me into the canyon (anyone who has ever travelled with me knows that this is a minor miracle in and of itself). One of the books was A.W. Tozer’s classic The Pursuit of God.
The day we went hiked out to the end of Panorama Point, I read these words (it’s a longish quote, but hang in there; it’s worth the read):
“The voice of God is the most powerful force in nature, indeed the only force in nature, for all energy is here only because the power-filled Word is being spoken.
The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is written it is confined and limited by the necessities of ink and paper and leather. The voice of God, however, is alive and free as the sovereign God is free. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63). The life is in the speaking words. God’s word in the Bible can have power only because it corresponds to God’s words in the universe. It is the present Voice which makes the written Word all-powerful. Otherwise it would lie locked in slumber within the cores of a book….
We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.
The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.
For this great sickness that is upon us no one person is responsible, and no Christian is wholly free from blame. We have all contributed directly or indirectly, to this sad state of affairs. We have been too blind to see, or too timid to speak out, or too self-satisfied to desire anything better than the poor, average diet with which others appear satisfied…
It will require a determined heart and more than little courage to wrench ourselves loose from the grip of our times and return to biblical ways. But it can be done. Every now and then in the past Christians have had to do it….I venture to suggest that the one vital quality which they had in common was spiritual receptivity. Something in them was open to heaven, something which urged them Godward. Without attempting anything like a profound analysis, I shall say simply that they had spiritual awareness and that they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives. They differed from the average person in that when they felt the inward longing they did something about it. They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response. They were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. As David put it neatly, ‘When thou sadist, Seek ye my fact; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek’ (Psalm 27:8).”
(A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, “The Universal Presence” and “The Speaking Voice,” pp.70, 65-66, 63)
God is speaking. Not past tense. But present tense. Continually. Always. I couldn’t help but remember that in the canyon. The question is, am I listening? Am I posturing my life in such a way that I can hear His voice amidst the hustle and bustle of life in the day to day? Can I rely on His Voice more than the bulwarks and walls I erect in my life to give me the illusion of control and permanency? In a moment, my walls could come tumbling down because of the force of nature, because of tragedy, because of change, because of sickness, because of the Hand of God behind it all, driving it all, allowing it all. And the question of the blip of my life against the backdrop of all eternity is not did I manage my life well, did I keep it all under control. The question of my life is did I surrender it well? Did I live in a continual posture of listening and obedience to the eternal Voice that is ever speaking? The Voice that has spoken in the past, is speaking in the present, and will go on speaking and carving and shaping and controlling and managing life long after I am gone.
Are you listening? Are you posturing your life in such a way that you can listen? Have you carved out canyons and spaces in your life to hear? Chunks of time on a daily and weekly basis when you cease from the fray and continual activity that leaves us weary, shallow, harried, and distracted, and stop instead on the vast brink of the canyon of the Mighty Hand and Kingdom of God and listen.
If we do not, we will end up as Tozer has said: shallow people living shallow lives. Capable of toppling at the first sign of sorrow because we have not carved out grand space for roots to form beneath. You don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon to stand on the edge of greatness, to posture yourself on the brink of vastness, to allow your soul to breathe and have a few uninterrupted moments of majesty. You can do it within the confines of your own home while sitting on the edges of your couch and the Word of God, allowing His Living Word to speak and apply His Written Word to your heart.
Don’t miss the grandness of the canyon on a day in and day out basis for the shallowness and rush of meetings, agendas, entertainment, and the fear of missing out. Respond to the Living Voice of God. Posture yourself in obedience. And let Him carve your life as He will. He has done a grand job for centuries in the canyons of Arizona. And if you can trust Him there, you can trust Him here. Today. In the canyon of your heart. Because more than He waits to paint the pastels of Panorama Point, He waits to paint is yours. Are you listening?