Above the fog, a glimpse of glory

In August 2016, my wife and I found ourselves in one of our favorite places on earth, Montana’s Glacier National Park. The mountains always awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of awe at the beauty, the grandeur — and the surprise — in God’s creation.

Glacier sunrises are not to be missed, so we always plan accordingly. On this morning, we left our cabin at 5:30 a.m. and drove west on Going to the Sun Road, the spectacular highway that bisects the park. From what seemed to be a clear predawn at the cabin, we imagined a spectacular sunrise from Logan Pass, the road’s pinnacle 18 miles and 2,000 vertical feet ahead. A mile or two from the top, we noticed there wasn’t the usual predawn light. Then we realized why. The entire pass was fogged in. We drove the final mile able to see only about 50 feet in front of the car.

The empty parking lot and Swiss chalet-styled visitors center at Logan Pass were barely visible. The only sound was a cold, wet wind swirling around us that didn’t seem to be moving the clouds one bit. Far below us, the sun was rising. Up here, dim-gray light revealed … nothing.

But as the fog swirled and our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, we started noticing things that would have been slower to reveal themselves in the midday sun. A mountain goat sauntered across the parking lot. Near a stand of pine trees, a barely-visible bighorn ram munched grass.

Then a warmer wind rose from the east, the St. Mary Valley. The clouds — still obscuring the pass — started to move in a singular direction, rolling across the pass and before taking a near-vertical drop into the McDonald Creek Valley to the west.

As the fog sunk, the sun’s horizontal rays caught just the top of Clements Mountain. Suddenly the towering peak, invisible just seconds ago, was bathed in golden light.

And then just as suddenly, it was gone again. All we could see was fog.

We hung out for a while longer as the mesmerizing scene repeated: thick fog moved along by the wind, fleeting glimpses of mountaintops, then back to murky nothingness.

By 8 a.m., the clouds had dissipated completely. Beneath an endless blue sky, the flow of traffic swelled. In the next couple of hours, the parking lot would fill. The area would teem with tourists who had no clue about the show they’d missed up here at dawn.

To me, fog-bound moments speak of hope – and of God’s faithfulness. We had been here before and we knew what was behind those clouds, whether or not we could see it at that moment. When the golden peaks would briefly come into view, the moment was transcendent, like an ever-so-brief glimpse of heaven beyond the usual fog.

Lauren captured one of those moments in a photo that now hangs in our living room. Little did we know at the time that we were approaching a season of thick fog, where every next step has to be taken in faith. Sometimes the fog clears momentarily … and then it comes right back.

But a wind is blowing. We’ve received enough glimpses above the fog to know we’re headed in a Godward direction. Whether we can see it or not, his glory is close at hand.

And that is enough.

Implications for storytellers

  • Remain in the murkiness long enough for your eyes to adjust. You will see things that others miss.
  • Observe prayerfully. Help others see God in places and situations where he isn’t readily evident.
  • Let those ever-so-brief glimpses of glory awaken your sense of wonder. Let them serve as reminders that God is close and active, even when our view is obscured.
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The power of story

If you want someone to know the truth, tell them. If you want someone to love the truth, tell them a story.

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An innovation conversation

Here’s an opportunity this Friday to talk about great ideas. Click on the image below to register.

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Pointing people to God

Here’s an inspiring article about C.S. Lewis’ motivation. I think it works pretty well for journalists, too.

… his methods were not manipulative. He was committed to objective value, seeking to follow the truth where ever it led. He was a truth seeker and attempted to be a truth teller. This was true of Lewis as a rhetor and no less true of him as an evangelist.

Lewis wanted to point people to God.

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A tragic story, told well

Vanity Fair has published an incredible, haunting account about the ill-fated cargo ship El Faro. The ship sank during a 2015 Caribbean hurricane, and all 33 people aboard drowned.

…the ship was found resting upright on a sandy plain 15,400 feet beneath the surface, and the recorder—a circuit board barely 2.5 inches long—was eventually retrieved. It contained the final 26 hours of conversations among nine doomed people on the bridge. The audio quality was poor, but a technical team was able to extract most of the spoken words and produce a 496-page transcript, by far the longest in the N.T.S.B.’s history. … It is now possible to know with reasonable certainty what occurred.

Writer William Langewiesche used that transcript to reconstruct the crew’s final hours. Reading this, I was thinking about their families. Would they want to know all this? To replay their conversations and their brave decisions and ultimately their fear as they abandoned ship and faced certain death?

I think I would. This story certainly honors their memory. It’s also a valuable story for the public consciousness, and one that might even help prevent similar, future tragedies.

I also thought about stories where bad things happen to faithful, prayerful people — and how I appreciate knowing those stories, disturbing as they are. They help guide my prayer life and, in some cases, my actions.

And then there’s just the pure craftsmanship of the El Faro story. Langewiesche, the writer, took a 496-page transcript and crafted what’s basically a movie. Long-form journalism still plays.


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Diving deep

Replaying a post from 2013

Shadow Divers (2004) by Robert Kurson chronicles the discovery and eventual identification of a World War II German U-boat wreck off the coast of New Jersey. The true story centers on two divers who take insane risks, and sacrifice much, to solve a mystery and conquer a challenge.

It’s a fantastic book, given to me by a friend who understands why people, especially men, gravitate to these kinds of stories.

Near the end, diver John Chatterton reflects on what drives him to repeatedly risk diving deep shipwrecks. It’s not about recovering souvenirs, or identifying a long-lost sub.

“When things are easy a person doesn’t really learn about himself. It’s what a person does at the moment of his greatest struggle that shows him who he really is. Some people never get that moment.”

Chatteron’s moment just happened to involve scuba tanks, a drysuit and a fantastic discovery. For others, it’s running marathons. Climbing Everest. Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Or even, quitting your job because you know you were made for more than this.

In a culture that places supreme value on safety and comfort, people find a need to test themselves. I’m convinced that God wired us for adventure and that most of the time we settle for far less. If we can’t find adventure in our careers, we look for it in our leisure time. What we find can be temporarily thrilling … but it’s usually not about the hike, or the climb, or the run. There’s something much deeper going on, and it’s worth taking a risk to find it.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

That’s often attributed to Henry David Thoreau. It’s actually a mashup of a Thoreau passage and a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes … but it doesn’t make the thought any less powerful.

May we break free of that quiet desperation, dive deep and discover a story worth telling.

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Develop an eagle eye for wonder

Near the northern Illinois farm where I grew up and where my parents still live stands a bald eagles’ nest. It’s about 100 yards back from the road, atop a tall oak tree overlooking the Piscasaw Creek. Miles of cornfields surround this little meadow where cattle graze  — not exactly where you’d picture majestic eagles soaring. But for whatever reason, there they are. They’ve been there, year-round, about 10 years now.

Whenever I drive out to the farm, I take a longer-than-necessary route in order to check out the nest. Often I’ll spot an eagle perched high in a nearby tree, scanning the creek for fish. Or the nest area will be empty, but then a mile later I’ll see an eagle gliding 50 feet above the grass, hunting field mice. Late spring is especially active, as eggs hatch and the mature birds care for their chicks, eventually unfeathering the nest and providing do-or-die flight lessons.

Even though I grew up here, it took me a few years to realize that northern Illinois — as flat as a basketball court mostly — contains a storehouse of natural wonder. Eagles are only the beginning. Deer, fox, coyotes, beavers, river otters and woodchucks can be spotted regularly if you know where to look. Pheasants, red-tailed hawks, owls, turkeys and great blue herons thrive here. Annual migratory routes bring white pelicans and even sand hill cranes.

Most times when I pull off the road to watch an eagle, a dozen or so cars pass without slowing down. The drivers either don’t know, don’t care or are in too much of a hurry to be distracted. That’s nice, in that I get these moments all to myself. But it’s sad that one of God’s most majestic creatures is perched there in plain sight and hardly anyone realizes it.

When I’m in a good season as a writer and photographer, my sense of wonder is set to high. A bald eagle, a quiet stream or a snow-covered woods point me to God’s artistry and infinite creativity. I recognize his handiwork, and the inclination is not only to quietly enjoy those moments, but also to capture them as best I can for the benefit of others.

Writers and visual journalists can steward God’s glory by taking good care of his stories. Those may occur on a grand scale, like whole communities finding hope and healing because they’ve received portions of the Bible for the first time. They might occur on a personal scale, like a prodigal son returning to his family or his faith.

Or a simple, wondrous moment in Illinois farm country might provide an unmistakable glimpse of God’s peace. Wherever we may find ourselves, an ever-developing sense of wonder opens our eyes to countless stories and images that others might drive right past.

Then we get to show them what they missed.

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