One of the highlights of my 2004 was seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights, for the first time in my life. This had been a longtime dream of mine, and my birthday present from my wife this year was a trip to Alaska in October for the express purpose of viewing the northern lights, with a professional photographer of the aurora as our guide. We had a wonderful trip, and shared many memorable experiences, but the nighttime weather did not cooperate and we never did see the lights.
However, shortly after our return to Portland, our photographer friend called to say that there had just been a tremendous solar flare and there was a good chance the northern lights would be visible as far south as Oregon, if we could get to a suitably clear, dark viewing place. So it came to pass that at 10:00 pm on the evening of Sunday, October 31, my daughter Molly and I headed up to the summit of Larch Mountain.
For those of you who are not familiar with it, Larch Mountain is a point on the eastern skyline that you have looked at many times. It is 4000' high and is only about a 15-mile drive from the town of Corbett, above the Columbia River Gorge. Most important for our purposes that night, it was well above the low-lying clouds that were covering Portland, and the summit is at least 10 miles from the nearest light.
As Molly and I drove up the two-lane road in the dark, seeing only the tunnel illuminated by our car's headlights, I shared with her an metaphor I had recently heard, namely that writing a novel is an act of faith much like driving down a road in the dark: one can only see just a little bit ahead, nothing of what lies around the next bend, yet one proceeds in the faith that the road continues beyond what one can see and that it leads to one's intended destination. We agreed that many aspects of our lives resemble this metaphor.
When we reached the parking lot near the summit, Molly and I realized that, in our haste, we had neglected one item that now seemed vital -- a flashlight. Having come so far, we decided to simply stand in the lot for a few minutes until our eyes adjusted to what little light there was, then we joined hands and proceeded to shuffle slowly along the quarter-mile trail, sometimes in pitch-dark woods, until we reached the summit lookout.
What enfolded in front of our eyes, and eventually all around us, was a spectacle that was one of most dazzling sights I've ever seen and yet, at the same time, something so fleeting and ephemeral that I couldn't be certain whether my eyes were just playing tricks on me. What I believe I saw began as a faint glow above the horizon, resembling the last dim light of a sunset -- only it was greenish-blue, and in the northeast. It gradually grew to fill most of my field of vision. Suddenly, thin beams arced out of the glow, shooting over our heads, sometimes in shades of magenta. Then the entire glowing field began to shimmer vibrantly, in waves emanating near the horizon and surging rapidly over our heads. At times the glow would die back to its original state, only to rebound once again with a new and different display of energy.
The reason I said "What I believe I saw" is due to the fact that, despite the vivid description I just provided, the lights were so faint that I was constantly questioning myself as to what I was actually experiencing. If I had been alone, I might have hesitated to acknowledge the reality of my visions, chalking them up instead to the images we sometimes see when we are in complete darkness. I didn't take any photographs, and if I had I seriously doubt they would have revealed anything. If my companion had said "You're nuts -- I don't see anything," I would have convinced myself that she was right, and I would certainly not be telling you or anybody else stories of shooting arcs of light and shimmering waves of energy in the night sky.
But that is not what happened. Instead, my companion that night said "I see it, too!" and she described similar visions with the same awe and exhilaration that I felt. Our right arms shot up simultaneously to trace an arc of light. We laughed in unison as the light field began to shimmer and dance. In harmony we announced to each other "Look -- it's turning purple!" As we shuffled our way back to the car in the dark, we agreed that we both felt transformed by the experience, and bonded together more deeply for having shared it with each other. Molly, who has journeyed in the past through atheism and Taoism and today does not choose to participate in organized religion, summed it up best on that walk when she said, "Dad, I will give you this: if you are trying to build a case for the existence of God, this is a pretty good start."
In fact, the hand of God is so deeply woven throughout this story that it is hard for me to comprehend. Our experience that night has been a source of great revelation for me, and I continue to find new meaning in it weeks and months later. What I would like to speak to today are the lessons this experience has provided me about the importance of this Quaker community of worship.
I think that one of the most difficult things for a modern, rational human being is to perceive, recognize and acknowledge the spirit of God speaking to or acting in one's life. I've often thought it would be helpful if God spoke to me with the clarity of the voice in the burning bush, but my experience of God's voice instead has much more in common with the northern lights that night. The impulses and leadings that I think of as God speaking to me are so brief and fleeting that, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they are gone by the time I recognize them. I often wonder whether what I am pondering is truly the mark of God's hand, or just a figment of my imagination. No photographic evidence or recordings are available and, lacking these, I am hesitant to describe to another person what I perceived, in anticipation of the disbelieving reaction this can provoke. It is so much easier to discount the entire experience, even to myself, and when one does so often enough one loses one's ability to perceive at all.
Fortunately, I have this community of worship, which provides for me in my experience of God what Molly provided for me in my experience of the northern lights. How does this work?
To begin, like the northern lights, the voice of God is constantly present, but it is frequently drowned out by the noise and light of everyday activity. We need to distance ourselves from this everyday world in order to enhance our ability to perceive the light. So, once a week, we travel to a place quite close to where we live the rest of the week, but a place that is nonetheless set apart from routine life and perfectly suited for hearing the voice of God.
We center by following a path of worship where we can see only one step at a time, but which we know takes us to a destination that we long to experience. We hold each other's hands and stumble along, blindly but eagerly, and then we wait in humble anticipation.
Sometimes the clouds are thick and we perceive nothing that we recognize as God's voice, but we are grateful nonetheless to have made the journey. Sometimes the light is dazzling: We believe we recognize God acting in our lives, and our hearts pound, our eyes well with tears, and our voices proclaim what we have seen. We speak knowing we are in the company of others who are committed to listening for God's voice and to sharing what they perceive.
Sometimes others perceive God's voice differently, and this can be enormously helpful -- not the skepticism of "You're nuts," but the observations of a trusted fellow traveler seeking a common goal. But other times, like with Molly or the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our sharing is rewarded with the cry "Yes -- I see that too! Are not our hearts on fire?" and the comfort and joy that accompanies such recognition gives us the confidence to take another step down the path God is leading us.
We close worship transformed by the shared experience of God and, as a result, bonded together more closely as a community.
So let us center once again as a community and proceed together down that mysterious path, united by our desire to experience the light of God, and to serve as witnesses of that light to each other. And let's remember that our faithful witness of each other's experience is what makes the difference between what we might pass off as fanciful flights of imagination and what we acknowledge as the reality of God's presence among us.