Friday, June 21, 2013

Night Hike

The trail is different at night. The swarms of sweaty tourists are sleeping between freshly changed sheets. The crunch of dusty boots and the labored panting of the over-ambitious has made way for a whistling breeze and the chirp of crickets. I am alone on the trail. I am alone in the world except for the dull yellow lights of the village above, perched on the edge of the cliffs.

The way slopes down, and my headlight illuminates the rocks and dirt in front of me. The rest of the universe fades to gray. There is only the sound of my breathing and my thoughts, which overwhelm the thick flapping of bat wings dipping and scuttling over my head.

I turn a corner and sense the night sounds’ sudden pause. A dozen eyes stare up from the trail that wraps below me. The eyes glare iridescent, but the bodies are shrouded in darkness. My nails dig into my palms.

I shift, and hear an echo in twenty-four legs running, grappling in the dust and rock, disappearing into the trees that grip the canyonside tenaciously.

I walk. I am alone until a bighorned sheep steps, dignified, in front of me. He turns his head and stares. His eyes glow brighter than my light. I freeze him in his stride, or perhaps he has frozen me. He dips his head to show his large and curling horns.

There is canyon to the right of me and sheer cliff to my left. The sky is peppered with stars, but the night is dark.

I’m only frozen for a moment when I remember who I am. I expand to fill my size and shape. I know that I am bigger. When I step forward, the spell is broken, and he runs to join the others; to hide until the intruder has gone.

When I walk back up, I hear my own belabored breathing and the crunch of my own footsteps. I feel the pull and strain along the back of my legs.

I turn and see the eyes for just a moment; mother-of-pearl insets flickering, until they blink—to wait—and blink and then blink out.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New Job!

As of yesterday, I am now a Front Desk Clerk at the El Tovar hotel!

While housekeeping was an exercise, both physically and in patience; the work was difficult, repetitive, and dull.

This is not to say the work was always terrible. Indeed, having 8 hours to myself each day allowed me plenty of time and space to think. Sometimes I got tips! Several rooms left behind food

However, most of the time people didn’t tip, and the solitude drove me slowly crazy. All this to say: when I heard of openings at the front desk, I jumped at the opportunity.

About a week ago, I took a skills test that asked questions like “When is it appropriate to yell at a customer?”(answer: never) and “What is 40% of $3.50?” (answer: use a calculator). When I did well on that, I was offered the job as soon as I met the housekeeping standard of 14 cleaned rooms per day.

Normally, management makes people wait until they clean 14 rooms 10 consecutive days without error, which could take 2-4 extra weeks, depending on the person. Thankfully, they were short-staffed enough to waive that requirement for me. After working with the renewed energy that comes from seeing a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, I finished out my week in housekeeping so strongly that my inspectors were sorry to see me go.

Front Desk training occurred over three days, where I took tours around the park, visited each guest room, and spent hours learning the computer booking system. I learned (theoretically) what to do with an angry customer, and how to direct people to the bathroom 500 times a day with a smile on my face.

El Tovar is the premiere lodging facility in the Grand Canyon (I might have stolen that from a brochure, my head is spinning with everything I’ve learned). The 108-year-old building has housed eight Presidents, and big names from Johnny Depp to Mark Zuckerburg. A co-worker from LA insists he’s seen more famous people in the Grand Canyon than he ever saw in California.

Even though my pay has only increased by 25 cents an hour, my style has increased by about a million dollars. I went from working in a gray polo with holes under the arms, to a dry-clean-only button up and a suit coat.

But it’s not about the money or the style, really. What I’m looking forward to is working with people again. Some people work better alone, but I perform so much better when people are watching. And loving on people—even difficult people—is part of the whole reason I’m here this summer.

I have so much to learn before I’m doing more than hiding behind my smile at the front desk. You may see sweat-stains under that nice jacket if you ask me one of the many questions I can’t answer. But I’m looking forward to a new challenge, new things to learn, and a change of scenery.

I’m also looking forward to someone else making the beds.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On Blessings and Surprises

I signed up last week to preach this Wednesday, but I was having trouble organizing my thoughts. I went to bed uneasily Tuesday night, figuring I’d polish my rough draft after work the next day. When I got back from work, however, a friend met me outside my door to show me a text message from the Pastor who helps coordinate our group.

“Just a reminder,” the text said, “the 100-person kid’s choir from Georgia will be at the service tonight.”

I don’t have a phone here, so I hadn't gotten the message earlier. I tried not to panic. In less than 3 hours, I’d be preaching to 100 junior high and high school students and their assorted teachers and parents, when I’d been expecting two or three tourists and a coworker or two. It was one of those moments where all I could think was, “Okay God, you got me into this mess– let’s see how you’re going to get me out…”

I spent the next few hours finishing and practicing what I was going to say. I wanted to talk about decisions, and how we can let small choices paralyze us, when our attention should really be on the bigger picture. We take decisions like where we’re going to go to school, what we’ll do for the summer, what job we’ll apply for; and let these overwhelm the “big picture” of our calling to love God first, to love others, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

It’s like walking in the canyon, I thought, and only staring down at your own feet. Yes, the bumps and steep slopes are there and we should be aware of them; but if we’re only looking down at our own feet we miss the gorgeous views around us: we miss the bigger picture.

High school kids are facing tons of decisions. It’s almost like God knew when he laid the topic on my heart a couple of days ago...

At the rim, the two other ACMNP students and I met briefly before seas of kids and parents in brightly-colored polo shirts flooded the worship site. It was chaos as their director corralled them and warmed them up. They barely fit in our small worship area. We finally settled on an order of service, with the kid’s choir—“God’s Light”—leading worship.

I’ve never been one for stage fright, but I’ll admit that junior highers are intimidating. When I walked up in front of the altar and stared out at 98 teenagers, 14 parents, and a dozen or so local visitors, it was “Okay God, this is you,” all over again.

So I spoke. I told people not to worry so much about the choices they were facing. Not to stress so much about God’s will that they forget to listen to God. Not to be arrogant enough to think that they could possibly make a choice that would mess up God’s plan.

The choir ended with a couple songs and I was relieved that the service had gone smoothly. Then a young girl came up to me. “Thank you for your message,” she said. “I really needed to hear that.”

“Yeah,” her friend said, “that was really good.”

A boy who couldn’t have been more than 12 came over to shake my hand. “You’re a good speaker,” he pronounced solemnly.

Well, if God could use Moses, I thought.

The leader of the group approached me to ask if I knew they were coming when I wrote my message. I admitted that I didn’t, and she said, “It’s like you wrote it right to them. You even used the same verse that was in their devotional last night.”

Person after person came up to me. I was embarrassed and completely humbled. I’ve struggled with pride before, but I knew I couldn’t claim this one. “God, not me,” I repeated.

I needed this service.

If I had known a week ahead of time that the crowd was going to be there, I’d have planned and rewritten, and tried to do that message on my own. And it probably would have been okay. But instead, God caught me off-guard to show me that what I can do on my own strength is pretty measly, but what I can do through him is pretty incredible.

I’m sure I won’t speak to a group that size for the rest of the summer, but now that I see what God can do when I leave it in His hands, why would I ever rely on my own strength? Whether speaking to 100 or 10 or 1, it’s God, not me.

God, not me.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Making beds and cleaning toilets is awesome, of course, but the real reason I'm at the Grand Canyon is ACMNP (A Christian Ministry in the National Parks). ACMNP sends around 400 people to 25 national parks across the United States, where they apply separately to work at park concessionaires. These volunteers, mostly college or seminary students, live, work, and lead worship in the parks.

I applied to the organization last winter after hearing of a friend of a friend who had done it. It seemed like the perfect mix of volunteer ministry, and "real-life" witnessing. Now, here in the Canyon, ACMNP is a huge part of what I do.

There are 14 ACMNP students in the Grand Canyon, and we lead worship services every night, with two extra morning services on Sundays. Each night, one of us will give a 10-15 minute message, one will plan and lead worship, and one will help with prayers, offerings, and other announcements. We trade off so each of us does 2-3 services per week.

The backdrop to our "church" is a dazzling view of the canyon, and nightly worship outdoors is incredible. Between two and five people have been coming to each of our services, but rather than be discouraging, the small number allows us to really connect with each of our guests. Before and after the services, we get a chance to sit and talk with visitors as far away as Germany and Belgium, or as close as our co-workers in the park.

Only about half of our ministry is directed to tourists and guests in the park. There's also real need in our neighbors and coworkers. The Grand Canyon is very isolated, and the people who work here are lonely, many of them feeling apart from or rejected by their friends and family.

Our ministry, then, doesn't stop at the nightly services. We're starting a women's bible study this week, and hoping to plan events and activities for fellowship. We strive to be good employees, thoughtful roommates, and helpful guests. We have a strong Christian community within the ACMNP members, but we also hope to reach out.

It's hard work, but it also feels like real life, in a way that summer camps and retreats seldom did. I'm really excited to see the ways that God is going to use us this summer, whether that's through sunset services, late-night conversations, or even a beautifully-made bed.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Texting from the Canyon and other Faux Pas

It's one thing that technology has advanced to the point where cell phone reception extends even miles down into the canyon. It's another thing to see hikers on their cell phones in the middle of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. People are tethered to technology, and they've forgotten how to see things.

I went on a sunset tour with a busful of tourists, and at every overlook they swarmed out, fanny-packed and sunburnt, and snapped pictures on their iPads.

"Every person in America should see this," a woman drawled while digging through her purse for lip gloss. She retreated to the bus after her picture was snapped.

"Honey, faster," another woman said, "We have more pictures to take."

"What's the best place to get a sunset photo?" a man asked the driver.

And suddenly it isn't about standing and breathing in the spectacular sight. It isn't about being still and witnessing something bigger than yourself. It's about taking a picture where you look good so you can post it to facebook and prove you had a great time on your vacation. Does it even matter anymore if you have fun on vacation, if you don't have evidence that you did?

People go about vacations at a frenetic pace. It's almost a competitive sport. They drag kids along behind them, pose them like dolls for photographs, and hop back on the bus for the next stop.

And I, of course, a hypocrite, snapped pictures along with the rest of them. I take to facebook to complain about people who are facebook-obsessed. And pictures are wonderful souveniers! But I wonder, really, how much of the world we miss as we try to capture it?