I drove to Montana and back today. An unforeseen set of circumstances led to my having to head down to Great Falls to drive a motorcycle back home. So, at 5:30 am, fortified with barely enough coffee, a piece of banana bread, a few podcasts on the iPod, and not nearly enough sleep, I began what I imagined would be a rather dull and uneventful three-hour trek south.
Northern Montana is…how shall I put this?… a bit of a barren wasteland. I remember regularly driving to Great Falls for hockey tournaments as a kid and thoroughly dreading the experience. Southern Alberta isn’t really anybody’s idea of paradise, it’s true, but Montana was a different animal altogether. Or so it seemed to me. As soon as we crossed the USA border I remember staring at the seemingly endless mile markers which stretched across the vast uninhabited prairies. The markers could never go by quickly enough. It was bad enough that these “miles” were longer than the kilometres I was used to seeing on road signs. Even worse was that the miles seemed to contain virtually nothing. An occasional dying town, an abandoned farmhouse, a cluster of billboards, a few cattle here and there, and vast swaths of either sun-scorched prairie in summer or ice and snow in winter. The Montana of my experience was little more than 200 km or so of distance to cover as quickly as humanly possible.
So, needless to say, a trip to Great Falls would not rank high on my list of must-drives. But a funny thing happened on my travels today. I encountered a different Montana. I drove into a spectacular prairie sunrise over the Sweet Grass Hills. I crossed through delightful little valleys like the Marias Valley with its bubbling river and beautiful greenery amidst all the brown. I marvelled at the uniqueness of little towns like Conrad and Shelby and Sunburst. Even Great Falls was far prettier than I remember it, with the Missouri River cutting a delightful path of life and beauty through this small city. Yes, the increasingly abandoned small towns were there, as were the unending plains sparsely dotted with cattle. Yes, the ugly billboards still made their obligatory appearances on the 1-15 to motorists speeding south, often at 80 mph or faster. Montana hadn’t changed that much in 20 years. But maybe I had. For there was beauty there to be seen, amidst all that was ordinary and even ugly, for those with eyes to see.
It seems to me that there are many parallels between a trip to Montana and the life of faith. It’s no surprise that the desert fathers fled to the barren, uninhabited places to purify their souls and to encounter God. These places teach one patience, I suspect. They teach an appreciation for beauty that makes only fleeting appearances. Or, they teach one to discover beauty where it was assumed to be absent. They teach perseverance and endurance. In the face of mile after mile of unyielding prairie and generic interstate, with the Rocky Mountains little more than a rumour on the distant horizon, one can begin to wonder if there is anything at the end of this road. But gratitude for the destination is perhaps deeper when the longing for it has been stretched and strained across distance and time.
These things are true of life with God, too. For many, the journey of faith is like a journey through northern Montana. There are long stretches of silence and the absence of life and beauty—long stretches where everything seems brown and burnt and used up. There are times when our faith seems utterly ordinary and useless, in complete contrast to stories and pictures from other more exotic locales. There are times when the wind and the sun causes our souls to shrivel and grow calloused—times when we long for a shorter, easier, and more attractive road.
But the Christian hope is—has always been—that God is uniquely present in desolate places, and that God can cause life and beauty to spring forth anywhere. Indeed, part of the Christian hope is that God can help us to see the goodness and wonder that is already present—even in places like Montana!—and which bears eloquent testimony to its Maker throughout God’s good earth. Perhaps most importantly, the Christian hope is that the road through the barren plains, while long and sometimes painful, has been walked by someone before us—someone who has shown us how to walk, and who is waiting for us at our journey’s end.