A number of years ago I had the blessing of making a trip to Alaska with my husband. We took a cruise up the Inside Passage and then had a land tour for about two weeks. At the end of the tour we added an extra day to fly to a national park above the Arctic Circle called The Gates of the Arctic. It is totally surrounded by mountains, inaccessible except by plane. Within this park is Anaktuvuk Pass, a tiny town which is seemingly cut off from the outside world. The only way in or out is by air. While the trip to Alaska was absolutely fantastic, my favorite part of it was that one day in which we were in the Park, literally in the middle of nowhere.
To put this into perspective, we flew up with the morning mail delivery and flew back 8 hours later when the pilot returned for the outgoing afternoon mail. The pilot told us that if it fogged in there was no way to land a plane because of the mountains. The Brooks Range surrounds the Gates of the Arctic National Park, so a mistake could prove fatal. This is not a national park such as one would imagine. There is nothing of a commercial nature about it. There is only the little town of Anaktuvuk Pass which is inhabited by native Alaskans, the Nunamiut. We were put into the hands of an able native guide and his younger cousin who took us on a very bumpy ATV ride out onto the tundra after we had our lunch at the lone diner there. It was late June and the high temperature that day was a balmy 55 degrees.
I discovered the tundra is actually incredibly alive. It looks sort of grey and dead from a distance mostly because the perma-frost keeps large plants from growing. But when we actually got out to the tundra and walked around, it was teeming with life! There were tons of itty-bitty plants; some were flowering and were imperceptible unless you got close up. It was "wall-to-wall" plant life. But what was most humbling in the entire experience was the knowledge that we were in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. This was before people had cell phones as readily as we do today, but even if we had them the odds of connection beyond the town would have been slim to none. To be out on the tundra where no one in the world from our family and friends knew where we were, was definitely humbling and a bit scary in its own way. The two young men knew where we were, but I felt a bit vulnerable. Even our plane ride out was not truly assured, though all went off without a hitch in the end.
The point of all of this is that we were never in the middle of nowhere, not for a second. First, we were with the Nanamiut people, who could not have been more gracious. They were clearly living an incredibly simple life. Everything had to be airlifted in or out. It was a small town, but this was home to a couple of hundred people. While we were there only for a day, the little town seemed to open its arms to us. We were not at all in the middle of nowhere!
Another reason I say we were never in the middle of nowhere is that everywhere is where God is. He never lost sight of us for a heartbeat. God was with us every moment of that exhilarating day. We were never really in any danger since the weather was picture perfect, though potentially traveling in an 8 seat airplane over treacherous mountains does have an element of danger built in. But to God we were in the center of His focus, as each one of us is every moment of every day and night. We may have felt vulnerable at some point, but there is no such thing as "the middle of nowhere" in God's creation. We were no less in His hands and in His sight than we are at any other time, on any other day, doing even the most routine of things.
There are days (we all have them) when we can be at work or in our own homes and feel like we are in the middle of nowhere. We do not have to be in a remote part of Alaska to experience this feeling. We can feel disconnected from family or friends without it actually being so. We can feel like we are lost in the midst of a busy life. That is when we need to remember that God always knows where we are and does not leave us for even a heartbeat. We cannot always feel His presence. But that does not mean He is not there.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in the pursuit of a spiritual life is to think that we are always supposed to feel God's presence, especially when we pray. Sometimes when people begin to pray they report that they feel God's presence. Then one day, God seems to be gone: they can no longer feel Him near. Others say they cannot feel His presence from the beginning and struggle because of this. Neither group is necessarily doing something “wrong”. Sometimes God lets us feel His presence and then when we get further developed in our prayer lives, He goes deeper, beyond our senses. It is all mystery; it is a wonderful gift and requires our faith to trust that it is so. And for those who say they have never felt His presence, I would say that maybe they were not sure where to look or what to look for. It could be a matter of our expectations. We are expecting Him to come one way, and He comes another, so we do not see or feel Him present.
Just like being on the vast tundra in the Arctic Circle, where I felt small as a speck of sand, we all feel a bit like we are in the middle of nowhere sometimes, but we are not alone. Just as the tundra is teeming with life, so too, is the world around us teeming with life. Between that which is seen and that which is unseen we are in a very populous world. Some of these simply are not visible to the naked eye until we take a closer look. If we ask Him for the grace to see and hear and experience, we can indeed begin to see and experience the life all around us.
God can make His presence known through the glories of nature, through the hum of the bus or train we take to and from work, in the faces of all the people we wordlessly pass each day, in the people with whom we interact, and so on. If we limit feeling God's presence to only our time of private prayer, we are missing Him in all the ways He comes throughout the day. While we sleep, He stays close. Sometimes He sends an angel to watch over us or to bring our prayer to and from Him. But we are never in the middle of nowhere. Not ever. As the Psalmist says: "O Lord, you have probed me and you know me; you know when I sit and when I stand, you understand my thoughts from afar. My journeys and my rest you scrutinize, with all my ways you are familiar." (Psalm 139:1-3)
And we should never forget that sometimes we are the agent of God's presence to those around us who may be feeling like they are in the middle of nowhere at a particular time in their life. Some may be lonely, some may be nursing wounds, some may be grieving the loss of a loved one, some may be at a transitional point in their lives and do not know where to turn. We can be the life giving presence of God to them through our care and our attention.
Let us pray for the openness of mind and heart to realize that we are surrounded by the presence of God. Let us ask for the grace to know that we are never really in the middle of nowhere and that God is always with us. May we let Him expand our boundaries and horizons so that we may realize His presence in our lives! May we be filled with joy in His presence! May we be God's love to those around us who feel a bit lost and are in need of His tender presence! Let us continue to meet in the middle of the Eternal Somewhere which is God's Heart. Peace!
The top photo is mine. It is of the mountains in the Brooks Range from out on the tundra near Anaktuvuk Pass. Even though it was June, there was snow on the ground near the base of the mountains.
The second photo was taken of me by my husband while we were on the Juneau Ice Fields where we went to walk on the glacier. This was another "middle of nowhere" experience since the only way on and off the huge glacier was by helicopter.
Heart Speaks to Heart