Working at the front desk of a resort, visitors regularly share their stories with me. Some are coming in after spending a spectacular day around the lake on a rented powerboat. Some spent time walking through the slot canyons of the Navajo nation. Some are just arriving from Zion, Bryce, or Grand Canyon national parks, where they were mesmerized with the stunning beauty and variety of the sandstone layers that forms the Colorado Plateau. With all of its sandstone rock formations, ranging from arches, natural bridges, deep canyons, delicate slot canyons, hoodoos, to sand dunes found in southern Utah and northern Arizona, this area is aptly described as “God’s sandbox”, where God got to have fun making a wide diversity of landscapes all out of petrified sand! These guests come in to share the story of their amazing encounters with God’s creation.
At the same time I hear these amazing stories, I also hear a lot of un-amazing stories. Summer in the Southwestern states is noted for its “Monsoon season”, where the desert receives its greatest deposits of rainwater each year. It is common for boat reservations or slot canyon tours to be cancelled due to the threat of rain and flash flooding. I frequently hear stories of guests who planned their visit eight months in advance, only to arrive on a stormy day. In some instances, guests demand to know why we didn’t warn them—before they made their reservation—that it was going to be stormy on the day they were going to visit.
I know and can understand the disappointment of having things falter or fail expectations. Nature is reliable, yet it also remains unmoved by our expectations. Nature is unpredictable. That is one of the things that keeps the wilderness “wild”. This is why we advise guests to keep distant from the animals they see in the park, or postpone or cancel their hike due to an oncoming electrical storm. In the midst of this unpredictability and wildness, there is an intrinsic beauty in nature that continues to draw people back.
In the midst of this natural beauty that continually offers praise to its Creator, there is very little artificiality. A tree can be scarred from a wind storm and still remain beautiful. A wildfire can instantly clear an area, but wildflowers will begin to sprout from the ashes as new saplings begin to take root beside their burned predecessors. An animal may limp from a broken leg that healed poorly, but even this injured animal is beautiful to observe. For those guests who wonder what the animals do after the guests leave, the answer is simple: they do the same thing they do when the guests are there. Nature does not put on a show simply because people are around to gaze upon its beauty. Flowers blossom whether or not someone stoops to smell its delicate scent. Snow drapes unseen hillsides unreachable during the winter season.
As a Christian leader who is surrounded by this ongoing parade of stunning beauty, I am often challenged by nature about the meaning of authenticity. As a receptionist at the front desk of this resort, it is my responsibility to smile and welcome guests—regardless of my attitude—to ensure that each guest’s experience starts off well. When I return to the dorm, I run into a seasonal employee whose long-distance relationship just tanked, or a person who feels so jaded by Christianity that he seems to have a personal vendetta to tell me what’s wrong with my faith. Regardless of how my work day went and how much I want to run away from these people, lock my door, and hide in my dorm for the rest of the day, my commitment to the ministry has called me to engage with these people—to listen to them, to talk and share. Ministry is a relational, so it is only by engaging in relationship, regardless of the difficulty, that I am able to share the love of Jesus with others. Talking with seemingly hostile people is totally contrary to what is “natural” to me. So does that make ministry artificial?
Sometimes it seems so hard to be authentic when the call of God is to go “above and beyond” what the base, fleshly part of me wants to do, but even that is part of what spiritual authenticity is about; it’s about working through tough things—those exercises the earthly part of me loathes in order that the spiritual side of me can grow and develop. Too often though, I wonder if we Christian leaders make our spiritual journey appear too simplistic. We make ourselves appear to have arrived at some spiritual peak, or display a form of spiritual perfection that others envy, but do not regularly show the pain and tear required to obtain it. It seems easier to “fake it until I make it” than remain exposed and humble, allowing others to see me with the faults, doubts, and struggles I am wrestling through. At the same time that I seek spiritual strength, I must also remember that walking humbly is what keeps me “human”.
Following Christ is filled with a lot of ups and downs, days of inspiration, and days of discouragement. Being a “natural” Christian, to me, means being honest when my day is going really well just as much as I need to be honest when my day has been rough. Days of spiritual challenge are visible just as much as those days when heaven itself seems to have touched the face of the earth. When I meet up with a challenging person, I can be honest about struggling to love the person...This is not a license to be rude or wallow in self-pity in difficult situations…for we are still called to obedience and love for all people. The point that I’m trying to teach myself is to be honest about where I am spiritually, but keep moving forward. Those who are watching will learn a lot more about real Christianity because of it. Perhaps in being authentic, people will see an intrinsic beauty that draws them back time and time again.