Morgan Park rests in the middle of Portage County, between Ravenna and Shalersville. I pulled into the park’s gravel parking lot right around the time the astronomical calendar listed as “sunrise.” It didn’t feel like much of a sunrise, though, because the sun was obscured by a wall of clouds. A whole sky full of clouds, in fact. The new day came as a slow fade from dark gray to light gray. Kind of sad and gloomy. Still, I found consolation in the fact that I had the desolation of Morgan Park to myself.
Morgan means morning, or tomorrow, or the future. So Morgan Park seemed to be a fitting location to consider the state of our world and the state of my soul at the beginning of this new year.
There wasn’t much color to the landscape. All browns and grays. Not even much in the way of evergreen trees or bright-colored berries attracting bright-colored song-birds (which can be typical in other nature preserves around here). It was just a drab, desolate scene. My boots squished deep into the mud as I hiked, and I found my soul sinking, too.
I thought and prayed as I hiked. It felt like God was coaching me, reminding me that the next two months may be the hardest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve got a sort of finish line in sight, now that people are starting to get vaccinated. But it feels like a moving finish line. And we’re tired from all the miles we’ve already logged to get to this point. January and February will continue to be cold and gray. Experts have been predicting that a lot of people will still get sick and die from this coronavirus before it’s all said and done. And my heart was further burdened by the suspicion that our church is going to have a hard time drumming up enthusiasm or building any kind of momentum in ministry until we can break away from our screens and spend time together in real life.
The desolation deepened. It became overwhelming. Until I turned a corner on the trail, and it dawned on me: “Wait a minute. I love desolation!”
Desolation means abandonment. Emptiness. And even though the word often has a negative connotation, I really do think it’s the word that matches up best with the reason I love places like Scotland, Iceland, and the western Dakotas. There is profound beauty in these places that are open and endless. They feel truly abandoned and empty — truly desolate — but these places leave me feeling refreshed. They give me space to feel my feelings and think my thoughts. The desolation makes me feel free and alive.
The longer I hiked, the more I noticed how the cool, gray, empty meadows and woods of Morgan Park provided perspective on who I am and who God is. The vast and timeless landscape reminded me of my smallness and insignificance, in the grander scheme of things. The smallness and insignificance of my problems, too. I am first and foremost an element of God’s creation, a child in His family. It’s not on me to bring about the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, or solve world hunger, or establish peace on earth. Those are God’s jobs. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
I cannot fathom it or explain it, but I can feel it profoundly. The desolation of the landscape alerted me to signs of life that would be otherwise obscured. I noticed it in the moss growing on the rocks and trees. I noticed it in the variety of fall leaves suspended in pools of water. The long, slender tree branches reaching up to the heavens spoke to this deep sense of consolation in desolation.
Consolation means comfort in times of trouble. And it usually connotes someone to soothe, too. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that desolate places are incredibly effective in bringing me face to face with my Heavenly Father. When I walk with God in the woods, He reminds me of His Word, which lasts even longer than the grasses and the flowers. He speaks of eternal hope, in spite of trouble. And He soothes my soul with His beauty and wisdom.