Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Dawn at the Overlook

March 7, 2023

Matthew Clark

The Overlook is a hillside park not far from where I live: a simple grassy slope, eastward facing, that tumbles down to meet the wide water of the local reservoir. A handful of times our little friend group has met there in the predawn dark to sit on that hillside together and watch the sun slowly rise over the water. A week or so ago, I ran across a photo we took two years ago on one of those mornings. There we were, looking like we’d just rolled out of bed (because we had) with the sun, in its early rosy-orange light, warming our faces. At this point, I’ve known most of these friends for more than five years. In fact, I did a little number experiment and figured that, conservatively, we’ve clocked something like six hundred hours together. 

As a singer/songwriter, I travel a lot. There are so many people that I love around the country. There are homes where I feel very much at home, and families who have made me a part of things in a real and beautiful way. Still, I often feel a sense of homelessness, uncertain of how to locate myself in this world. All of the people I know play their own part in “hemming me in” – providing a sense of habitation and home when I feel the natural and inevitable strandedness that comes with a largely itinerant life. But, in a special way, I always look forward to coming home to this little group of friends with whom I’ve spent so many hours. 

One of the things that’s become clearer and clearer the last several years is what a lie individualism really is. I mean the lie that we can locate ourselves in the world without external points of reference, that we can understand ourselves without any embeddedness in a web of interdependent relationships, or that we could ever hope to know ourselves truly without the help of friends who know us better than we do. We are intrinsically relational creatures, made in the image of a Trinity, and it’s simply not possible to retain a sense of reality without the help of deep, joyful attachments of love.  

I can’t see myself. Even my physiology prevents it (my eyes face outward, away from me). I rely on the faces of the people nearby to reflect back to me a sense of my own self. The best relationships provide a well-lit mirror for us to see, understand, and locate ourselves within reality. In short, it’s the relationships marked, among other things, by mutual reverence, constancy, and responsibility [1] that ground us in the Actual, rescuing us from a life spent drifting in the shifting shadow-realm of fantasy. Together, we are all on a pilgrimage to the ultimate instance of this ratifying seen-ness, as we travel in faith towards the face to face meeting with Jesus that is the certain Joy set before us. 

What is becoming ever clearer to me is that I cannot make that trek alone. I can’t keep track of who I really am. I need someone else to say my name, or I will forget it.

Of course, you’re probably already feeling the danger of this kind of thing, aren’t you? We might just as easily be manipulated and pulled off into crazy places by smooth-tongued devils (human or otherwise) who are more than happy to tell us who we really are. Abusers and accusers do insinuate themselves, and, in general, because we are simply made to have our identity established from the outside in, wider circles of societal and cultural influence have a real effect on us. Even our own voice within us is not entirely reliable, if we’re honest. It’s overwhelming, as it seems to take such an enormous amount of effort to stay clear-eyed and clear-headed. Or am I alone in this struggle? No, I know better than that. 

But how do I know better? Because I’m a part of a conversation of mutual care and honesty. My friends confess their own restless (and seemingly endless) contending with the voices that smell, taste, and look like honey, but have left their stomachs sour. I know I’m not crazy. It really is hard, in our situation, to remain “rooted and established in love” – that particular, personal love we find in the seeing face of Jesus, specifically. Hard not to be blown around by every wind of teaching in the world. Hard not to succumb to the brain-fog of irreverence that blinds us to the true nature and value of things – the compulsion to anesthetize ourselves against the inevitable vulnerability of the kind of love Jesus patterns for us at His own crucifixion.   

Maybe because I happen to be sitting across from this particular friend as I write this, I’m thinking of what she did for me just a week or so ago when I needed help seeing reality, remembering my name. I won’t go into details, but I was in a very distraught place, and I had decided to do something that would have been unkind. She confronted me. She confronted me gently, honestly, but very firmly. Because of our long friendship, I knew that as unpleasant as her words were to me, I needed to take them seriously. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”[2] She helped me tap the brakes enough to get a better look at the truth I was speeding past, the truth I didn’t want to see. I was in the wrong, and I needed to change direction. 

When I say “change direction,” I’m talking about repentance. There’s an incredible tension that gets a hold of us when we try to walk in two different directions at the same time; we can’t help but be torn apart by the opposition within ourselves. I imagine that is some of the reason for the misery of sin: it’s not that God hates us because of our sin (apparently, he doesn’t), [3] but that our sin tears us away from that Face whose look assures us of our belovedness.

Repentance turns us around to face Jesus, who alone can rejoin what has been torn asunder within us. Repentance, scary as it can feel because it puts us in a position of vulnerability at the mercy of Jesus, is finally an enormous relief. It’s a relief because it’s a turning towards our true self – the natural, whole state our dear Creator had in mind when He loved us into being.  

So, what my friend did, and what all friendships worth their salt can do, was pull me back into the reality of who God dreams for me to be. What kinds of things do God’s family members do? If I am a member of Jesus’ household, I need help seeing when I’m getting out of sync with the vision of life God has communicated. The trespass I was planning did not sync-up with God’s way of living in relationship. I was losing sight of that. Because I was afraid of losing something I felt I needed, fear led to an impatience with God’s wise paths and a distrust in His promise to provide for me. I was taking matters into my own hands, rather than submitting to the way God does things. And I couldn’t slow myself down, couldn’t see the problem that was clear from my friend’s vantage point. I hate to think how things might have gone had there been no one to help stop the runaway train my fearful, selfish heart had become. 

Can I tell you about another friend? This friend is one whom I had wronged deeply. I knew I needed to ask for forgiveness if there was to be any peace between us, but I was afraid to have that talk. Why does asking for forgiveness feel so deadly? Maybe because it is to admit a fundamental vulnerability, exposing ourselves to be rejected, and, in a sense, condemned. C.S. Lewis points out that “to excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable.”[4] To really ask to be forgiven is to face one’s fault squarely and without any softening excuses. The danger is felt as we forfeit control, because we’re entirely dependent on that other person’s charity. Only as they extend mercy and grace can we begin to experience real relief.

But failing to confess is equally dangerous, because it renders our most deeply suffering places inaccessible to the healing joy of forgiveness. I can tell you that I felt all that danger leading up to that conversation with my friend (trembling hands to boot), but my friend forgave me. Amazingly, I was embraced and forgiven by one who, by all reasonable accounts, should have rescinded any expression of love towards me. It is an inexpressible glory, forgiveness. To be met in the place of confession with embrace, with tenderness and kindness. That is the kindness that lovingly shepherds us towards more and more healing repentance. [5]

My friend’s tenderness and gracefulness, in a sense, named me “forgivable.” Something true about me became true for me, making its way from my head to the heart of my lived experience. I learned my real name a little better, and was located by love. I glimpsed, in my friend, a little of the light of Jesus’ face, and in that light I saw myself more truly. 

Many times I find myself asking God in prayer, “Lord, where am I?” It often seems to me that, in those withering times, the absent one is not the Lord, but me. I’ve lost myself, lost my sense of place in a family, with myself, with the Lord. I can’t see myself in relation to anything but my own darkened, disoriented self. 

In that predawn darkness, I roll wearily out of bed and huddle in the cold on a shadowed hillside overlook. My friends are nearby, even if I can’t see them. We wait together for the light to fall on our faces. For the grass to grow green in the dawn. We rise together as that light begins to face us, and we turn our faces to receive it. We smile together, holding with one another that which holds us and calls us by name.

[1] Dietrich Von Hildebrand, The Art of Living (Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press, 2017).

[2] Prov. 27:6a, NIV

[3] Rom 5:8

[4] Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001, pg 182

[5] Rom 2:4, NIV

Featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Susan Clark says:

    what a great thing to get up early and see nature come alive.I loved standing in the predawn very quiet listening
    for the sound of a gobbler. something about shared time with someone to share the presence of God. We can feel the goodness when busy life is still and the things of nature are our company. I love the stories of that faith in those we love. sounds so wonderful to rise to share the sun rise and it’s special relation it brings.

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