I live near the dump. No, I don’t live in a dump! But I do literally live very close to the County Dump. Its official title is The South Coast Recycling and Transfer Station (as though we all don’t know it’s really the dump, right?). Other alluring landmarks are next door – the County Jail and a sheriff substation, to be specific. Sometimes people ask me if I get a little scared living so close to the jail. I respond simply: Why would I be nervous? The county sheriffs are there too!
One night last week, I looked up from an afternoon of emails and projects in my home office and realized I’d lost track of time and missed my window for taking a walk to the nearby park. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back before dark. Since I still needed to get some exercise in, I headed out and spontaneously turned in the opposite direction to make a loop that would take me past the dump.
I moved into my home in 1996. In all that time I had never taken this route for a walk. But my stiff back needed some low-impact exertion, so I was motivated. This warm weather in October had made the day quite warm – the temperature had gotten up to 82 degrees that afternoon. But when I left the house at 5:45pm, it had cooled off quite a bit. The air was still, and the foothills were crystal clear in the distance. Oh my, I do love living here!
I hiked up the hill near Alpha Resource Center, a school for developmentally disabled adults. At the top of the hill, I turned right and headed up Cathedral Oaks. After another slight hill, I turned again toward the dump. I chuckled to myself in noticing that no one else was around. Note to self: if you want some alone time, take a walk near the dump!
I walked past the entry gate and continued musing, “Of all places I could go on a walk in Santa Barbara — I cannot believe I’m walking past the dump!” If you’ve never been there, let me tell you: it’s really ugly. Tall frames of netting protect a large grinding machine from being inundated by seagulls. Steep piles of trash line the hills when the trash is dumped by garbage trucks day after day. Odd bits of detritus scuttle around the sides of the road leading up to the gates after falling off of the trucks bringing in their loads. The grassy areas along this road are also bare and scraggly. Despite these bleak surroundings, it felt good to stretch my legs. I had my iPod on, so I put my head down and cranked out some mileage.
As I headed down the hill, I stopped abruptly in my tracks. Straight ahead, off in the distance, I saw the Pacific. It was a perfectly clear sky. Dusk was setting in, and the sun was a glowing orange ball poised on the horizon. Little wisps of clouds touched the water line, but I could see the ocean and the Channel Islands. It was absolutely lovely. I stood there, alone in this beauty, speechless. I wanted someone else to see it! After a few moments I thought, “How ironic that such a breathtaking view can be viewed from here. No one would think to come to the dump to take in such a sight!”
I didn’t mention earlier that all sorts of other county services are located right nearby: Mental Health, Child Welfare, Drug And Alcohol Prevention & Treatment, Public Health, AIDS services, Disease Control and the like. As I continued down the hill, I thought about all the people who come to these County Buildings every day, many of whom I see on my walks and bike rides. These offices exist for those of us who are living on the edges of this life. People come here because they are unemployed, ill and uninsured, suffering from AIDS, in psychiatric distress, being abused, or spiraling into substance abuse. Alongside this breathtaking view there is so much garbage, suffering and hardship, day in and day out.
In the midst of these musings, a scripture passage came to mind:
I would have despaired unless I had believed
that I would see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD. (Psalm 27:13-14)
In this life, we spend all of our days in what feels like the “dump” of this world, trapped in our own sin and the results of the sins of others. Jesus’ death and resurrection do give us new life, and if we pursue him we grow more and more in love with him. Yet we are still burdened and slowed down by the worries and struggles of day-to-day existence and the weakness of our flesh. As it says in 2 Corinthians 4:16, outwardly we are wasting away… It is easy, in the midst of such striving, to want to give up – to despair, as the psalmist says above.
Yet we are reminded here in Psalm 27 that in this life we also get glimpses of heaven – brief tastes of the goodness of the Lord in the land of living. That is what I caught sight of on that walk. I had kept my eyes on the ground leading up to it, assuming that the scenery wasn’t going to be anything worth looking at. I had let myself get lost in my own thoughts.
Yet when I looked up, my entire perspective changed. As the psalmist says somewhere else,
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
This is the tension of our lives on earth as believers. Some theologians have called this the pull between The Now and the Not Yet. The Apostle Paul describes it in his letter to the Philippian church:
For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:18-21)
As believers we live a wishbone life, one foot anchored on earth with the other one straining toward heaven. It’s a challenging tension, to say the least. If we are alive another day, it is because Jesus has something for us to do here in His name. Yet heaven beckons so sweetly.
As Paul says earlier to the Philippians,
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:21-24)
As I finished up my walk my iPod played a song by a gospel and blues artist from the 1930’s named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. One song in particular really got my attention. I’ve heard it many times before, but in that holy moment up on the hill beside the dump at sunset, God put some words to what I had just experienced:
I feel so bad in the morning
I feel so bad in the middle of the day
I feel so bad in the evening
That’s why I’m going to the river
To wash my sins away
I’m going to lay down my heavy load
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m going to lay down my heavy load…
He will meet you – at the dump, at the riverside, or simply where you are in life. He will not leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31). Lift your head, and look for Him. Occasionally He will surprise you with inklings of what He has in store for you. In these brief moments you will receive His healing, a deep sense of His love, and hope everlasting.