As a kid I remember being frightened by monsters skulking in the dark corners of my bedroom. Perhaps the odd bully who pushed me around in school.
Yet I sat in Church this past Sunday as Pastor Marty began to preach on how deeply we need the fear of God. Wanting to understand the idea of “shock and awe fear of God” as Pastor Marty expressed, I began to think of times when I felt true fear.
Two years ago I decided to strike out and climb Mt. Langley, a 14,000 ft peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Both myself and a friend picked a date for the climb, but our plans were threatened when a forecast calling for substantial storms appeared in the mix.
Undeterred, we decided to give things a go and turn around if the conditions progressed to a serious degree.
Typically summer thunderstorms are a common occurrence in the High Sierra. Usually clouds build up throughout the morning and culminate in brief but scrappy afternoon down-pours occasionally sporting an electric light-show.
My partner and I figured that leaving early would give us enough time to summit before the afternoon, and get down before any serious conditions materialized.
As we got closer to our climb the forecast downgraded to 30% showers with no notable electric activity predicted. So, feeling pretty invincible, my partner and I began driving up the 395 from Santa Clarita at 2AM (That’s no typo, just insanity).
Even in the dark morning at the trailhead, rain was falling and it was clear to us that the sky was iron-grey with storm clouds.
Already tired and genuinely dejected by the wet start, I tried to persuade my partner to call the trip, sleep in the car and drive home (not out of any concern for safety, rather for an aversion to being cold and wet).
Jeff, my companion, said he wanted to give the trip a shot. I sighed and agreed (I didn’t want to be the chicken who threw in the towel first).
Insanely tired we both saddled up and began to hike as the storm began to break, revealing slivers of blue-sky in the early morning twilight.
In the course of the next two hours we reached an area called Cottonwood Lakes basin, normally a gorgeous green bowl studded with grey boulders and gem-blue lakes, it felt as it we were in a huge convention center as the clouds formed a low roof and the rain began to fall in earnest.
I turned to Jeff and confessed the extent of my discomfort, he affirmed his desire to continue. I sighed again and agreed. Once more I refused to relent my pointless machismo…
It took several more hours before we were able to reach the peak as the rain continued on and off, and the clouds continued to sock us in and then dissipate.
Once on the summit, drenched and beat, we paused for a moment to pull out a stove to make some hot food and drinks to fight off the sadness that comes with being cold and wet.
The summit was open to a blue-sky, but all around we were hemmed in by a wall of clouds.
As our pot of water began to hiss, we felt it before we saw it.
A great shudder ripped through our very guts before we heard the unparalleled roar of the thunder.
Words fail to express the primal sense of fear that I felt. It wasn’t apprehension, concern, or anxiety, rather a sharp sense of smallness.
I felt frightfully tiny, as an ant that has just comprehended the foot about to stomp upon it.
We didn’t see the lightning bolt, but it had struck the north face of Langley less than 100 yards distant.
With a single look at Jeff, we dumped our pot of water and shoveled our belongings pell-mell into our packs and RAN. We sprinted and stumbled down the sandy boulder fields squealing in dismay like little piggies from the big bad wolf.
Throughout the course of the day we had been so concerned about continuing on, and having not heard any thunder that day, we hadn’t realized that we summited in the early afternoon.
Once safely below the high summit, we turned to one another wide-eyed, torn between terror and utter excitement.
The feeling of a lightning-strike was unlike any fear we had felt. It was the fear of God, it was both terrifying and electrifying (pardon the pun).
We continued down the mountain at first talking about the true sense of AWE that we felt, eventually bursting into worship songs. We were so imprinted by that moment that our only response was to praise the one who made it and the one who kept us safe.
Occasionally our praise was punctuated by the next languid peal of thunder that would lazily roll out of the higher peaks.
Though I can never recommend that you put yourself in harms way, here I found myself a prime example of what the fear of God is, something truly and overwhelmingly terrifying, but something so spectacular that our first response is to give him praise.
- Joseph Gregory