This is the sixth message in the series on worry and fretting. It describes an experience of mine some years ago that reveals a truth for these times of loss, foreclosures, and uncertainty.
I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
Behind my home in Corona, California rise a steep brushy range of mountains called the Santa Anas. A trail guidebook says of one feature of these mountains: “With five tiers and a total drop of 150 feet, Tenaja Falls is the most interesting geographical feature in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. In late winter and spring, water coursing down the polished rock produces a kind of soothing music not widely heard in this somewhat dry corner of the Santa Ana Mountains” (Jerry Schad, Afoot and Afield in Orange County [Berkeley, CA: Wilderness Press, 1988], p. 104).
Rock and water in combination are irresistible to me. I wanted to see this waterfall in a remote wilderness area about forty miles from my home.
I first traversed a rough wilderness track eroded by heavy winter rains. This was no problem for my trusty Toyota Land Cruiser.
After reaching the trail head, I crossed a rain-swollen creek and made my way up a rocky, brush-choked canyon floor toward where I thought the falls would be. It was there that I began to give serious thought to rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnakes are a fact of the trail in Southern California. The Indians drew pictures of them on the rocks. Spanish and early U.S. explorers wrote of their dangers in expedition journals. I have encountered them at 7700′ on mountain ridges and on city streets. More than 300 rattlesnake bites a year occur in Southern California. The number is increasing due to development in the hills and the canyons.
The snakes are most active in temperatures of 75-90 degrees between early spring and mid-fall. According to the same guidebook where I found the directions to Tenaja Falls, I found this reference:
“Rattlesnakes are fairly common in brushy, rocky and streamside habitats from coast to mountains….Watch carefully where you put your feet, and especially your hands, during rattlesnake season. In brushy or rocky areas where sight distance is short, try to make your presence known from afar. Tread with heavy footfalls, or use a stick to bang against rocks or bushes. Rattlesnakes will pick up the vibrations and buzz (unmistakably) before you get too close for comfort” (Shad, ibid, p. 9)
I carry a long English Yew thumb stick (fork at the top that I slip my thumb over) when I hike. I’ve carried it for 25 years and my spouse and friends know that I want to be buried with it when I die. In the canyon brush I proceeded carefully probing ahead with my stick.
It was 11:00 a.m. when I started. The temperature was about 80 degrees. It was late March, the time when rattlesnakes come out of hibernation, hungry and irritated. My desire to see the falls in season struggled against my concern about snakes. The willows, lilac, bunch grass, coastal sage, coyote brush, nettles, mule tails, manzanita, scrub oak and poison oak (yikes!) were so thick that I could barely see my boot tops. My eyes were glued to the ground ahead.
Looking down so much, I lost my bearings and ended up in a side ravine in thick wild lilac bushes higher then my head. I plunged on in the direction where I thought I would find the falls, but I could not see or even hear them.
After two-hours of bush-whacking, I came to a big sycamore log on a sand bar. I checked around the log for snakes and sat down to eat my lunch. Sitting down in the stillness, I realized how tense I was. My anxious watching took the joy away from the experience and led me off the path. I looked around and spotted a faint but true trail on the opposite bank. My breathing relaxed and the breeze was cool against my sweaty back. I prayed to God in thanks for the journey so far and for guidance on the trail ahead.
When I repacked my stuff, I stood and slung the day pack over my shoulders. I picked up my stick and looked up the canyon. There, in a breathtaking cascade of sun-lit, silver spray, I saw Tenaja Falls. It had clearly been in view for some time, but I’d been looking down, not up. I could even hear its steady roar in the distance.
The care of my work washed from me in the gracious sight. I forgot my worries about rattlesnakes
In that instant a life-truth was revealed to me. If I am intently focused on the possibility of the snakes, I will miss the wonderful, shining waterfall. If my effort is directed toward avoiding the sting of death, I will miss the healing water of life.
Jesus spoke to his disciples about snakes with names like wars and rebellions, earthquakes, famines, diseases, persecution, betrayal and hatred by loved ones, displacement, distress, wrath, paralyzing fear and anxiety about the future. And when he told them about these dangers in answering their deepest concerns he also said: “Now when these things begin to take place, Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:19).
Two of Jesus’ followers didn’t get the message. On a lonely journey home after their hopes were crushed at Golgotha, their eyes were looking along the road for the vipers of grief, disappointment, confusion, injustice, and the death of hope. Jesus, himself, came near and went with them. They could not bring themselves to look up and recognize the grace of his resurrected presence. He began to explain the Truth that would save them from the serpents of their fears. They were moved to invite him to dinner with one of my favorite prayers: “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over” (Luke 24:29).
In the grace of the meal, they sat and rested. He blessed and broke the bread of their sustenance and gave it to them from his own nail-pierced hands. At that moment their eyes were opened wide to the recognition of Jesus and their hearts burned with the revelation of his shining presence (Luke 24:13-35).
The setting sun is shining in my eyes as I finish this word of grace. My heart is full of love for those of you who will read this sitting at your computers. You may be losing the bearings of your journey in the paralyzing fear of the snakes in the brush. Maybe the snake is the relationship that won’t hold together, the budget that won’t balance, the job that bleeds you rather than feeds you, the child whose only contact with you is the coil and strike of angry words, the depression that masks the fear of inadequacy and failure, the health that is slipping away, the shame of sin unconfessed, forgiveness withheld, or community betrayed. I pray for you and me the words of Psalm 80:19: Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.”
And I tell you right now if you look up with the eyes of your heart there is a waterfall before you–a torrent of grace–the water of life flowing right out of the hard rock of your heart, flowing down into the brush-choked, snake-infested box canyon of your life. I do not make this stuff up! Jesus cries out “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scriptures have said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38).
This is the call of grace and a guaranteed snake-bite remedy: “Now when these things begin to take place”–the things you dread most and that threaten to rob you of eternity and hope–“Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption (the son of man coming in a great cloud of glory) is coming near” (LUKE 21:27-28).
Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us this week. May my anxious, fretting brothers and sisters who read this message look up to see the sun-lit glory of your cascading grace. May we all bathe and play in its cleansing, healing pools and drops. We praise you Jesus, for you have crushed the serpent that would destroy us beneath your heel. You are our peace. Move, from our heads into our hearts, the certain knowledge that we are now safe to look up and enjoy you. We say our eternal “Yes” to you! Amen.
Next week’s message will discuss why “worry” cannot be “sanctified” as “concern.”
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,