The Parable of Thompson Canyon

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is one of my favorite National Parks. Its rugged landscape of mountains and moraines captures the essence of the Rockies. If you visit the park, you will most likely travel Highway 34 from Loveland to Estes Park, which lies at the eastern entrance. It is a scenic drive through Thompson Canyon, home to the Big Thompson River.

On the drive are signs that read, “In case of flooding, climb to safety.” As the picture above illustrates, that may be easier said than done in some stretches. On July 31, 1976 a thunderstorm stalled over the western end of the canyon and in Estes Park, unleashing a deluge of 12 inches of rain onto the upper end of the canyon. The river swelled from its normal 18″ depth to a 20-foot surge that swept away almost everything and everyone in the canyon. It remains Colorado’s deadliest natural disaster, with 143 lives lost.

During the flood, the Olympus Dam, responsible for Lake Estes, held. The flood was not the result of a structural failure unleashing the contents of the reservoir. It was a product of geography—steep rocky terrain with little vegetation—and an unusual amount of rain.

Many of us have rocky canyons in our hearts, courses where temptation can flow swiftly to sin. If we have identified them, we may work to restrict the flow of temptation in them. We build a dam. But a dam is only an initial measure. Even if we have a very effective dam, we still face the danger of it giving way, or of temptation ignoring it by raining heavily slightly downstream.

How often does our virtue have more to do with a drought of temptation than with any change or effort on our part? We may become complacent, thinking we have changed the landscape of our heart when we haven’t. The dam may start to weaken through neglect while the enemy waits patiently.

To be truly changed, the landscape of our heart must be changed. It is not enough to divert a stream of temptation and yet leave the rocky canyon.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 40:1-5 (ESV)

To truly be transformed, we have to do nothing less than to tear down the canyon walls and fill in the valley. We alter the contours of our heart that make it prone to flash flooding toward a particular sin. This is not easy work. It may seem futile, standing on the rim of the canyon, pickaxe in hand, watching as a few rocks we have knocked loose bounce down to the canyon floor. What difference will those few rocks possibly make?

It is a lifelong task, one we may not even finish. It is not without danger. Swinging our pickaxe into the hard stone, we may not hear the distant rumble of thunder and climb to safety soon enough. But, having been swept downstream yet again, we must go back and continue our work.

We do not work alone; the Holy Spirit will aid us, though he will not often do the work for us. Often, only through our own obedient labor do we see transformation take place, slowly, over time.


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