As I write this I am sitting at a small desk in front of a window overlooking the Kantishna Valley in Denali National Park in Alaska. The view is simple and completely compelling. A green belt of wilderness spreads out broadly, filling my window, with a river braiding through it in several different directions at once. Birds sing and trill sporadically. Dandelion fuzz floats through the air, glowing and glistening as it reflects the strange solstice sunlight of Alaska. It is 10:20pm, yet with the sun high in the sky, beating down on us with a steady heat, it feels like 5:30 at home on a lazy summer day. What a bizarre effect it is, this never-ending summer light way up north.
I will have difficulty sleeping tonight. Not because the accommodations are not comfortable, or because it is noisy or crowded around me. Instead, I will probably not sleep much because it is so lovely here. I can’t stop looking at it. I can’t stop savoring the view and really, the whole of it all. These are one of the few times in life where you cannot hold on to it tightly enough. As much as I will want this to last for a long while, it simply will not. Like trying to hold onto a fistful of sand, the tighter you squeeze, the more quickly it trickles away. If I try too hard to hang on to this, by taking photos or oohing and ahhing over and over about how beautiful it is, I will actually lose it.
I have one other distinct memory like this. One night, five years ago, I was on a tour of Turkey and Greece, tracing the travels of the Apostle Paul. The trip brought us one night to Assos, just below the ancient city of Troy. Assos is a remote fishing village perched on the Aegean Sea. The tour bus stopped outside the town, and we had to walk in, because the roads, as much as you could call them that, were far too narrow and uneven to allow for a bus. As we stumbled over the cobbles, I thought I’d walked into a time warp. Life had essentially remained the same for centuries.
We ate well that night – fresh baked crusty bread, earthy red wine, an endless array of olives and hummus and feta and lamb and fish and roasted vegetables. I was so outrageously full I could barely breathe. Yet when dessert came, I refused to miss it. It was some sort of baklava, I’m sure, or lovely custard. As I finished, the food coma made me almost dizzy. I clambered up to my tiny little room to go to bed and found the full moon reflecting on the absolutely still Aegean Sea, boring a laser beam right into my room. The moonglow was stunning. I sat at the end of my bed, leaning onto the solid, plastered windowsill almost all night. I simply took it all in -- the water, the moon, the silent night, the soft marine wind, the smells, the timeless nature of the town. I shake my head still as I think about it. It rests in my memory fondly, just as this one from Alaska will, as a complete sensory delight.
This is joy – something so astounding and powerful in the feelings it creates. We cannot help but smile as it wells up in our memory. At the same time, we are slightly shaken. The experience is so strong we can hardly absorb it, and the power of it nearly knocks us over. We are not built to handle its full effect, but it's irresistible! So we squint, inhale deeply and dive in, grateful and thrilled and scared. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "All joy...emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings."
These are tastes of heaven. To quote Lewis again, "Joy is the serious business of Heaven." Every so often, ever so briefly, God pulls back the curtain and give us a peek. “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living,” it says in Psalm 27. These deep draughts of eternity are meant to feed us as we press on in the heaviness of now.
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD.
This is how Psalm 27 ends. We are able to wait when we get these glimpses of the "not yet." May I savor them and linger on how deeply they satisfy me. Especially when I have to plod forward through conflict and loss, cancer and fear. This life is not all there is, I will remember. I am meant for more.