Published 1:18 pm Saturday, July 16, 2016

by Andrew Book

In today’s world, it is hard to impress anyone. We all have access through TV, social media, internet and a thousand other sources of all the “awe-inspiring” things that this world has to offer, and so, in one way or another, we have seen it all. Or so we think. The reality is that a picture on a screen can never truly compare to the reality we experience. I was struck by power of experience over the last week as my family traveled to, and spent time around and in, Niagara Falls.

Now, in some way, we have all “experienced” Niagara Falls. The pictures of the Horseshoe Falls are nothing short of iconic and I expect most Americans could pick Niagara Falls out of a lineup. We think we know the falls. We look at the pictures and think, “that’s nice” and then return to Netflix or Pokémon whatever else is grabbing our attention at the moment. So, when my family began planning our camping trip to Niagara Falls, I was excited about the trip, but was not expecting to be impressed by the falls themselves. I had been there once, briefly, a decade ago, so I thought I had “experienced” Niagara.

It turns out I was wrong.

There are lots of ways you can see Niagara Falls. There is the overlook from the American side (the Niagara River creates the border between the U.S. and Canada), but that view is not great. There is the overlook from the Canadian side, which is much more impressive.

There is the “Maid of the Mist” boat rides, which take you to the base of the falls. There are even helicopter rides over the falls! Aside from the helicopter (which was more than a bit out of our budget), we took in the falls from all of these angles. Instead of just seeing the falls, we experienced them. We had moments under the falls where all we could do was close our eyes and feel the power of the water as it pounded our faces and ponchos.

We had moments above the falls where we watched calmly flowing water transform into a powerful cataract cascading hundreds of feet. We even visited the water on both sides — taking time to see Lake Erie (the source of the Niagara River) and stopping in a park in the Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario.

Each of these moments gave me a little different experience of the Falls, but the most powerful experience came as we hiked up a trail beside the American Falls after our ride on the “Maid of the Mist.” There was nothing to see except the steps in front of us because we were enveloped in the waterfall’s spray. The wind created by the falls was intense, and the water lashed at our faces and any other exposed skin was something akin to a tropical storm. If we had not known where we were and understood we could find a beautiful summer’s day a few hundred feet away, the experience might have been terrifying.

Instead it was exhilarating. We laughed most of the way up the path because of the sheer joy of truly experiencing the Falls — the power, the way we experienced the falls with every sense, and the way it completely enveloped us in its presence. The experience was awe-inspiring and it was totally different than looking at a pretty picture of the falls on a postcard or computer screen.

In this experience, I was reminded of the lie of living through our TVs. Life is not merely to be seen or discussed; life is to be experienced with every sense of our bodies. Life should leave us soaked and laughing at what we have encountered rather than just thinking about what we have watched someone else encounter.

Faith is the same way. God is not a picture to be viewed from a distance that allows us to say, “God is nice.” God is to be experienced, like a waterfall whose beauty is undeniable, whose power is irrefutable, and whose ability to totally surround and envelope you is unsurpassed.

We do far too much of our living through someone else’s life. We need to enter the world around us —whether it is Niagara Falls or our own backyards and neighbor’s lives — and encounter life, encounter God, encounter other people, and discover that there is more to living than simply “seeing” or “understanding.”

One of my goals as the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church is to create a community where we don’t just talk about God, we encounter God. If you are looking for a community that is intent on entering the falls rather than just looking at pictures, you are invited to join us.

May your story echo the story of Psalm 42, so you may declare “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (Psalm 42:7, NIV)

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or