by Rebecca D. Higgins
The dome light in the car was the only illumination that penetrated the early morning darkness as I reached for my hiking gear. Zipping my jacket against the crisp October air, I inhaled deeply. The aromatic traces of last night’s campfires built by backwoods campers mingled with the spicy scent of pine and pungent earthy aroma of leaves and moist sand. As I swung my backpack onto my shoulders, I caught a glimpse of stars through the treetops and paused to savor their increased brightness in a setting far removed from the distracting glare of streetlights and traffic. Gripping my hiking pole in one hand and a flashlight in the other, I started down the trail. My goal was to traverse the two-plus miles from the trailhead parking lot to Auxier Ridge to see the sunrise over Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. The small beam of my flashlight illuminated only a few feet in front of me as I kept my eyes downward, focused on the path. I was thankful for the steadying presence of my hiking pole that kept me from tripping on protruding roots and rocks and sprawling across the path—or worse—over the edge of the yawning ravines beside which the trail meandered perilously close in places.
The early morning quiet was broken only by the sound of my hiking boots tromping the beaten path, the occasional scurrying of an animal through the underbrush, and–as the trail began to climb–my rhythmic, heavy breathing brought on from the exertion of the hike and carrying the heavy backpack weighted down with camera gear, water, and trail snacks.
Sometimes in life like my early morning trek, we find ourselves stumbling alone in the dark. Setbacks of various kinds find us teetering on the edge of a precipice—loss of loved ones, loss of a job, loss of health, loss of financial stability, loss of trust, loss of dreams. Life doesn’t always go the way we thought it would. It takes us instead down a path we never imagined and never wanted to travel. The dark seems to engulf us and we keep our eyes turned downward on the losses and the obstacles that litter our path and try to trip us.
As my wayward thoughts mingled with prayers that October morning, I glanced up and saw that the sky had begun to lighten as it does in those moments just before dawn breaks. I stopped right there on the trail to shift the focus of my attention and my camera upward to the horizon as the sun peeped over the ridge, silhouetting the timberline that had been scorched by a forest fire just a year before.
In many ways that early morning hike in 2011 is a metaphor for some life experiences. Over and over again during personally difficult times–dark nights of the soul, if you will–God has used my interest in photography repeatedly to redirect my focus and teach me lessons about life, faith and walking with Him . . . even in the dark.
I shared in my introductory post on this blog that photographer Dorothea Lange is credited as saying, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” For me, it is an instrument God uses to transfer my focus from an obstacle-strewn trail through a dark valley to the light of His love and grace. I am not a trained, professional photographer by any means, but God has used the art form to help me to see the world through new eyes . . . to observe beauty in the ordinary . . . to stop to appreciate and capture moments that in our busyness we too often ignore or simply fail to see. Photography has allowed me to see things from a different perspective and in doing so has afforded me with treasured moments of peace even in the midst of some of life’s storms. However, it’s not the photography that has done it, but the intentionality of keeping my eyes open to observe the world the Father has created and to bask in His grace and care. It has prodded me to hike woodland trails, to sit in quiet on mountain ridges and beside the ripples of creeks, to appreciate the delicate beauty of a butterfly’s wings, to bask in the warm glow of a sunset, to watch the morning fog lift off of the river, to search in the tree canopy for the bird that has blessed the morning quiet with its song. And whispered through those moments I have tried to capture have been the reminders, first from the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God”; and then the words of Jesus himself as He spoke to the storm: “Peace be still.” As I peer through the viewfinder of my camera and select the point of focus for each shot, I am reminded that it is not just a photographic journey I am traveling but a spiritual journey as well, and that the central focus of my attention must ever be on Jesus Christ.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace. (Helen H. Lemmel)
Sometimes our experiences and insights in painful and vulnerable times are not for ourselves alone but are meant to be shared for the purpose of uplifting others even though that isn’t always easy. While many of my observations in this blog are a collection of personal reminders–a journal of sorts– it is always my prayer that in my sharing them, you will be encouraged wherever your journey may find you. For those who may be traveling through a dark valley, may you join me in finding motivation to adjust the focus ring of your heart on the things that matter most, and pray to see instead of the darkness, pain, and loss, the light of God’s love and grace. May you be reminded as I have been that you are dearly loved . . . by God himself. You are not alone. He travels the pathway with you.