Every summer after my twelfth birthday, I spent a week at girl’s camp, backpacking and hunkering down in tents we pitched ourselves in places like Waterton International Peace Park and Banff and breathing air that looked like this:
We did our fair share of marshmallow roasting and cheesy campfire skits, but the real highlight every year was a torturous experience the adult leaders provided us under the guise of a “hike”.
The “hike” always involved heavy backpacks, not nearly enough water, treacherous slopes, and a half or three-quarters point at which we were begging to turn around. At which juncture we would be informed that a retreat would take just as long, if not longer, than pushing on to the bitter end.
Sometime after this, when the blisters were oozing and our legs and lungs were burning, and we were faced with what I sure was a suicidal crossing of sheer rock face, I would begin pleading with God.
Let me survive this hike, and I will never, ever, pretend to be asleep when my mother calls me, again. I will be nice to the kid that sits behind me in science.
Alternately, make my death swift and painless?
At which point He would take away whatever cloud cover we might have been enjoying or send an entire colony of giant red ants swarming up our pant legs.
You got the feeling He might have been laughing.
But always, there was that moment of triumph when the goal was realized, the water bottle refilled, and we were perched on some granite peak that overlooked half the known universe, and the feeling was indescribable. We were so glad we hadn’t quit.
And somewhat awed that we hadn’t. The most fervent prayers of gratitude I ever uttered were probably delivered flat on my back looking up at a Rocky mountain sky, or while hunched on a windy peak, my arms around my knees and a granite boulder at my back. I remember one year, another girl collapsed on the shale beside me and we were looking out over this incredible valley and there were birds singing and a glacier behind us, and we looked at each other and there just weren’t any words for it.
The next day at church we stood to sing the closing hymn, and I was dumbfounded to realize that there were words for it and that Carl Gustag Boberg had written them more than a century before I was born:
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
I looked over at the girl who had shared that wordless moment on the mountain top with me, and we smiled, because we knew what it was to look out over God’s creation and feel our souls harmonize with the universe. And then, while my soul was wide open with the realization that God was indeed a creative Being, the rest of the song rushed in, carrying with it the knowledge that he was a merciful and a just God, also. That he was not laughing at my blisters and my ant bites and my poor, empty canteen on that mountain that day, or at any other treacherous, painful moment of my life, but that He knew me intimately enough to recognize the melody of my soul no matter what it was singing.
That hymn became one of my favorites, and provided me with some interesting experiences later in life.
This afternoon while I was lying outside in the playground bark, with various snot-nosed toddlers clambering over me and pointing out airplanes in the sky, the song was on a perpetual loop in the back of my mind. I finally closed my eyes and faced directly into the sun and paid attention to the words and the music and it was amazing how many associations and how much momentum one song can gather as it accompanies you through the years.
I looked up the lyrics today–to see if Boberg really wrote the words I thought he wrote, and I came across a translation I had never read before. You might like it:
O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,
When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.
When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling,
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel thy balm and, all my bruises healing,
My soul is filled, my heart is set at ease.
And when at last the mists of time have vanished
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,
Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee.