SALVATION MOUNTAIN

God is Love is a simple phrase, but an idea we struggle to accept as is

There’s this one scene in the movie Into The Wild. When the young, disillusioned Christopher McCandless decides to set off on his own and rediscover what life is really about, he finds himself at Salvation Mountain, an eccentric sculpture of a mountain colorfully adorned with letters spelling out God is Love, or Jesus Loves You, or a variety of quotes from the Bible. While he’s out at this bohemian landmark, he meets and strikes up a friendship with an elderly craftsman Ron Franz. As he and Ron are perched up on the mountain, overlooking the sprawling crags of the desert. The two of them start talking about God and acknowledge that even though Chris isn’t particularly devoted towards organized religion, he is willing to acknowledge that he owes a great deal of gratitude to God just for being alive. They talk about their frustrations with human relationships and the joy of being alive. Ron acknowledges that relationships can be troublesome and can make it difficult to stay joyful, but he then goes on to say something so profound yet simple. “When you forgive, you Love. And when you Love, God’s light shines on you.”

That’s one of the things I’ve come to understand about forgiveness and why it’s so important. I once used to think of it as one of many noble virtues, alongside honesty and kindness and humility. But now I think of all those things not so much as separate virtues, but all together as part of a much bigger picture of Love, and I truly believe that forgiveness is essential to Love. I used to think far too small. I used to think that forgiveness was simply a nice gesture, but now I understand that grace is Love in action. When you forgive, you Love.

I had an opportunity to visit Salvation Mountain in person before. While Sonny and I were interns at the same non-profit, we were sent on tour to many different states to represent the organization. His team took the East Coast while my team drove around the Midwestern states. It was an incredible time, but also a very tiring season for us. I had only been dating my girlfriend for about six months at that time, and I had already spent half of that time span out on the road in different time zones.

My teammates and I had arranged to reenter Southern California in grand fashion. We would spend our last night on the road at Salvation Mountain, which sits just a few minutes after the Arizona border. We spent one night taking turns driving all the way through New Mexico and Arizona in order to have an entire night to spend living out a vagabond’s fantasy in Salvation Mountain.

While the aesthetic of Salvation Mountain might resemble the brain of an overly peppy Sunday School teacher, it was actually a sort of mecca for all sorts of hippie-types. I use the word mecca ironically and the word hippie-types very literally. Just around the corner from the sculpture sits Slab City, a settlement of trailers where a number of people had started living in a simple, wild, and occasionally belligerent community. It was a fun environment, one where all kinds of personal liberties were expressed.

My teammates and I made our way through Niland, the small town just a mile or two away from Salvation Mountain. Niland itself is a small collection of streets and houses, but in comparison to the camping-for-life inhabitants of Slab City it might as well have been its own empire. We drove through Niland and finally arrived at Salvation Mountain

In person, Salvation Mountain looked just like it did on film. The producers of Into The Wild did a surprisingly accurate job of capturing the unlikely environment around the eccentric sculpture. I felt as if I had been whisked into the scene from Into The Wild and I was pretty much ready to befriend an elderly craftsman, spend some time under his roof, and have him carve for me a handmade belt, just like in the movie.

Instead my phone rang.

“Okay, I’m just getting out of Niland, and I think I’m going towards the mountain. Is it on the right or the left?”

I looked at my teammates and they smiled. My girlfriend, who I hadn’t seen in a couple of months had planned a whole surprise visit.

The sun had set and I had to honk our horn a few times so she could locate our van. Apparently she had planned a much bigger surprise of beating us to the base of the sculpture and surprising me from her car. She had balloons and everything she was ready to release from her trunk. That night marked six months since we began dating.

Well, things don’t always go according to plan. One of the roads was closed, and she had to take an unusual detour costing her about an hour after getting a little bit lost. Apparently the name of the road on her GPS system simply registered as “road.” That’s how far off the main path she had gotten.

I was still amazed by the surprise, and thrilled. My teammates, it turns out, were in on it. Since the sun had gone down, we went into Niland to have dinner. We spent our six month anniversary dinner at a grubby hole-in-the-wall Mexican diner, and we went back out towards Slab City. Fitting in with the locals, we would just spend the night in the large, company van I had spent three months driving around the country.

We would explore Salvation Mountain the following morning in more detail. When the sun was up, we could appreciate the layers upon layers of what looked like tempura paint on thickly poured plaster. The mountain was the size of a good hill, with a sculpted, blue-and-white striped staircase that led to the top. We took pictures, plenty of pictures, and enjoyed the scene. Within the mountain, small rooms had been carved out, one housing an entire collection of framed certificates and another completely filled with trophies. One side of the mountain was built into a walkway of painted branches, and the entire thing was colored vividly. I walked around the side to find John 3:16 written out in molded clay and red paint.

In Into The Wild, there’s a part where Christopher McCandless reunites with a family of American nomads in Slab City. He befriends a local girl who lives in one of the trailers, and there’s this one scene where the two of them play a duet at an open mic night. It turns out that this was also an accurate depiction. There is stage called The Range where musicians and other bohemian artists perform every Saturday night.

We all went out to The Range, where a man who might have been on any number of substances was on stage performing Buffalo Springsteen. The environment felt so unreal to us and we had a memorable time. It was here that we really connected with the soul of Slab City.

I was sitting next to my girlfriend, amused by the colorful personalities that inhabited the surrounding trailers. The singer on stage performed on, his voice so marked by its raspiness that no matter what song he played, it sounded as if it were sung by a pirate. While taking this in, we were approached by a tall, skinny man with a long coat and long hair.

“How are you guys doing? Name’s Moth,” he introduced himself.

The entire night, we’d occasionally hear an outburst from Moth coming from the back of the audience. He directed most of his rage towards one girl, who he would berate with a stream of profanity. Other people had to calm him down a few times. Oddly enough, he would only become belligerent around the sight of this particular girl. At all other times, he was gentle and cheerful. Slab City was full of oddities like this.

“How are you doing Moth?” I acknowledged his presence.

“Doing pretty good,” he responded, which I would’ve found much easier to believe if not for his outbursts at that one girl. I figured some form of schizophrenia or something was probably at work, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

“Do you know why they call me Moth?” he asked.

“No, no idea.”

“I’m attracted to the light,” he smiled. “You guys here for the mountain?”

“Yeah we are,” I answered.

“Oh nice, nice. Yeah. What do you think of that?”

“It’s pretty neat.”

“Yeah, right? God. Is. Love. Right there, up at the top. You know, Len really believed that.”

“Len?”

“Yeah, he’s the guy who built that mountain. Guy’s not in such good health anymore, sadly. I think he’s down in San Diego now. But he made something that means a lot to people over here.”

“Sounds like an interesting guy.”

“Yeah. He believed that if everybody believed that God was Love and that God really Loves us, jerks as we are, and I mean, if we really believed that, things would start to change. People would become more Loving. We’d see things return to the way they should be.”

“The way they should be, huh?”

“Yeah. Oh man…” he laughed.

While Moth might not have been the icon of a stable psyche, he did live up to his name, fluttering around the light of the statement emblazoned on top of the mountain. God is Love.

The implications of believing that God is Love are tremendous. It’s a simply worded concept, but it contains so much depth. As Sonny and I had reflected, we were made to Love and to be Loved. It’s funny how the instant we experience Love, we know it and recognize it, but it’s something no scientist has ever been able to understand, no artist has been able to portray, and no philosopher has been able to explain. It’s as if human history has been one long saga of failed attempts to get our heads around what it means to be Loved.

The idea that God is Love can even be scary sometimes. Some people fear that if we simply believe he’s Love, we’ll no longer have any motivation to do what’s right. We’ll simply allow ourselves to go off the deep end, believing in a permissive God and lowering our moral standards. Actually, in churches, I have rarely heard the statement God is Love meditated upon without some sort of disclaimer. “God is Love, but…”

“God is Love, but you need to take responsibility for yourself.”

“God is Love, but he demands righteousness!”

“God is Love, but God can also get angry!”

I’m all for personal responsibility and righteousness, and I don’t think Love and anger are mutually exclusive. But, I think we miss out on being truly impacted by the weight of God Loving us when we rush to slap some sort of disclaimer or amendment on it. I think Moth was on to something. If we truly believed in God’s Love for us, we would see something powerful change inside of us.

I’ve heard a few people throw out the idea the God is Love, but that Love is not God. The reason I think a lot of people say that, is that we have too narrow of an idea of what Love is like. So often, we have it watered down to romantic feelings. Or we talk about how much we “love” a shirt that we’ll be getting rid of two years down the road. Love goes so much further than romance. I don’t believe that Love is even an emotion.

I think a lot of us are used to the idea that above all, God wants us to perform well, giving us grades on how good of a person we are. But I think what God ultimately offers us aren’t grades and scores, but relationships and connectedness. When Jesus talks about how all the other commandments are tied to the one that says to Love, I think that means that the things God asks of us are designed to lead us towards Loving relationships.

When I think of real life examples of Love, I think of the sacrifices of my parents. I think of them learning compromise with each other, and patience, and grace. I automatically think of any instance where one person gives up his life for another person. Sometimes this means dying for somebody. Sometimes this means getting up and deciding to live that day not for yourself.

All the real life examples of Love I can think of consist of somebody offering themselves to another person freely. It looks like somebody paying the cost for another person so that a relationship can come to life. This is grace. It is acted out in sacrifice and forgiveness.

And it is always unconditional. You can always recognize pure Love when it is given unconditionally. It is no mere social exchange.

To be forgiven is to realize that you are Loved. Every human heart needs to accept Love.

This is what having a faith built on second chances means to me. I know my own heart and my own thoughts. I am a doubter and carry a lot of mistrust. I greet new information and big ideas with skepticism, which is why I find it quite surprising that I’ve found something in life in which I can plant my hope. Honestly, I often feel as if I’m the most unlikely believer. But at the end of the day, I believe. I believe in God and that he Loves me and that he shows that Love through sacrifice and forgiveness and that he does so on a daily basis. Your life just isn’t the same after being embraced by ultimate forgiveness.

When I experienced my deepest moments of loneliness and depression, I would regularly question whether or not I was lovable. There were many times when I felt unlovable. But when I began to open myself up to God, I started to realize that I was not only loveable, but that I was Loved. And in spite of all my doubts and my reasons not to believe, I still find myself a believer. It’s not that I have tremendous faith, really, I don’t. I believe that God’s Love for me is simply too strong to let go.

Philippe Lazaro2012