When I was growing up in Belfast, we lived quite high up on a hill. Looking out from our rear-facing windows, we could see Stormont in one direction, and in another direction, we looked right over the city of Belfast, with the cranes of Harland and Wolff standing loftily in the foreground. As a young child, one thing I loved doing with my Dad was going for long walks. One walk took us up a country lane to the very top of the hill. There was a farm gate where we used to stand and look down on the house where we lived. It looked tiny from our vantage point. On a clear day, if we took our binoculars, we could see ships travelling up and down Belfast Lough, cars being driven down the winding road on the hill opposite and I always thought we were really lucky to enjoy such a view.
There’s always something special about a vantage point – a special place where the view is extra spectacular. For many years Peter and myself spent our holidays in mid-Wales – and it was always part of our plans to drive up into the mountains to get the incredible views of the countryside. Seeing nature in all of its splendour always made me feel closer to God, even in those times when life was so tough that finding God in the everyday was a challenge. To be in the wilderness with only the sounds of nature – the trickling of a stream, the calls of sheep on the hillsides, the shrill cry from a raptor soaring high on the thermals, the gentle buzzing of insects flying by, it is refreshing and calming. Somehow, being above the landscape made me feel just that little closer to God as I looked in awe at the expanse of creation below.
When I turn to my Bible I find that some truly great things happened in high places. Moses received the Ten Commandments, Jesus was tempted, Jesus was transfigured and we know Jesus often retreated to more remote places to teach his disciples. When Elisha flees for his life to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19) the mountain of God, he takes refuge in a cave. When instructed, he goes out and stands on the mountain waiting for the presence of the Lord to pass by. The Lord wasn’t in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but came as a gentle whisper. When we retreat to our vantage point, we are removed temporarily from our difficulties and can be more receptive to the still small voice of calm, the quiet whisper reminding us that God is alongside us and will never leave us or forsake us. For those precious moments, our troubles are dwarfed by the greatness of God and the beauty of creation and we are comforted.
However special our times in the lonely places may be, we always have to come back to reality, to the hardships and the uncertainties, but we do so better equipped and strengthened by our encounter. We go back to our challenges as Elisha did, with God on our side.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm;
O still, small voice of calm.