I’ve returned from the wilderness, and in a little bit, I’ll be joining my church family in celebrating the resurrection of our Lord. Alleluia, Alleluia … He is risen.
So, too, are we who abide in Him.
I’ve no doubt that today I will, more than ever before, be dead to sin and my old life and be “resurrected” with Him into a new life. Praise the Lord, for He makes all things new–even me.
So, what did I take away from the wilderness? What did I learn?
The first lesson that I seemed to learn was that perhaps the wilderness wasn’t at all where I thought it was at all. When I woke up on Good Friday morning, it seemed as though Satan was up to his old tricks again. My alarm didn’t go off, and I was far behind “schedule”–I had planned to leave quite early that morning and have the solitude of the morning to guide me into a place of contemplation on the Passion.
After a row with about a hundred small SNAFUs, I found myself far away from any sort of serenity–instead, I found myself seconds away from an anxiety attack. Far from wanting to love my neighbor, I was contemplating running them over. As I got into the car and headed out, I prayed to God to take it away. “This is NOT the way I want to or should start a retreat, Lord–” I prayed silently. And yet it continued–the highway was full of intense driving, and careless drivers, at that. Three times I came very, very close to a serious wipe-out … mostly due to the careless driving of others. My adrenaline was pumping and my anxiety was so high that my heart beat very nearly out of my chest. “Godly” music didn’t seem to help at all–I found myself yelling epithets over the calming strains of, “I Can Only Imagine” … after which I grumbled the half-hearted reminder, “Light and salt, Sam … Light and salt.”
As I drove from the outskirts of the city, I started to wonder if I wasn’t exiting the wilderness. I sighed with the realization of how broken this world is … and how broken I am.
But while I drove, the cars became more and more sparse and I felt the anxiety melting away. The wide, open road came trickling down rolling green hills, and the sky was devoid of any clouds. No chance at rain. I took a deep breath and rolled down the windows, and began to chat with God–telling Him what I was hoping for, and asking Him what He hoped for. As usual, I’m pretty sure God couldn’t get a word in edgewise if He wanted to. I’m good for that … it’s a habit I’m learning to break.
With the wind whipping through my hair, I talked to God about everything and nothing–stopping every so often to offer Him thanks for something beautiful. Eventually, I reached my destination–nestled in the green countryside and hidden in the lush, fragrant forest. No signs of people could be found, and I was pleased. I found the campsite furthest from anyone and I set up camp.
It wasn’t very long after I had arrived and set up camp that the time was nearing; it was nearly 3:00 pm. I sat myself on a log and I pulled out my Bible, reading from the Gospels about the moment of Christ’s death on the cross. I lit a candle while I read it. Here in this quiet place, reading about His agony–His separation from God–I shed a few tears as I blew out the candles at 3:00 pm. As the Light of the World went out, the candles were snuffed out, too–the smoke rising and being caught on the wind.
At that moment, it was so silent. I could only hear a breeze. I stopped and prayed for a little while, and then I got up and finished setting up camp.
I spent a good bit of time reading–reading the bible, reading a few spiritual books. Eventually I decided to play a few songs of worship. The sun was getting low in the sky, and dusk was fast approaching. While I strummed the guitar and played some worship songs, I was struck by the beauty of the golden, dappled sunlight. Even when I closed my eyes, the light sparkled through my eyelids. I stayed in that moment, playing “Indescribable” with passion. I felt a shadow rush past my eyes and heard a rush of wind, and I opened my eyes to see a hawk soaring over head, dipping his wings towards me. There were, in fact, three hawks–their shadows encircling my little encampment.
“How beautiful,” I breathed.
I squinted to see if they were, indeed, hawks or eagles. If they were vultures, I wouldn’t feel so full of awe. Vultures circling? That’s not a good sign. But they were indeed hawks or eagles of some sort. They began to fly close enough for me to see them, to hear them. They tore through the air, making an incredible sound. I watched their shadows, and I watched them dive. I thanked God.
The imagery brought to mind the verse from Isaiah 40:31:
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Night fell and I made up my bed in the tent. It grew very cold very quickly, and I donned every shirt I had packed and two pairs of pants and two pairs of socks. I knew it was going to be rough night. Around 8 o’clock, I sat in my tent and read for a while. Then I prayed for all of those who asked me to pray for them. And then I prayed for everyone and everything I could think of . Eventually, I laid down to sleep. I couldn’t, though; I was far too cold to sleep, the ground was hard and I wasn’t accustomed to going to sleep so early. And it was so very silent. I could hear all manner of bugs and wind, and even the rush of a somewhat distant river. I thought of the clamor that I heard from my dorm room in the city and I was pleased. I listened for a while, happy to be away from the city. In the silence, though, I heard loud, fearsome groans.
It was some sort of animal. And while I didn’t know what sort of animal it was, I did know that whatever it was, it was probably big.
And somewhat close.
I pulled my blanket around me and tried to think of what it could be. The first thought in my mind was that it was a bear. And then I thought of the signs that were posted that warned of wild boars in the area. Either way, I wasn’t too fond of the idea of them being anywhere in my vicinity. I tried to think of scenarios and how I might handle them.
But I wasn’t frightened.
That much surprised me. I have always believed myself to be a fearful person, but I shrugged it off. I prayed for the Lord’s protection through the night and I slipped off to sleep. I felt safe with Him watching over me. That surprised me, too.
And I will make with them a covenant of peace, and will cause the evil beasts to cease out of the land: and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods … And they shall no more be a prey to the heathen, neither shall the beast of the land devour them; but they shall dwell safely, and none shall make them afraid. — Ezekiel 34:25, 28
I woke up the next morning somewhat sore, but not devoured by bears. Or boars. I gave thanks to God and greeted Him with a cheerful, “Good morning, Lord!” I drank some water and felt the urge to explore. I drove my car around the campsite, and found the picnic area blocked off by what looked like a river rushing over the road, so I turned around the other way.
When I came to the end of the road, my breath was taken away by the mountains shrouded in ghostly wisps of mist and cloud, lit up by the rising sun. “Oh, Lord–” I breathed. “Thank you. This is so gorgeous!” I pulled over to the side of the road and took a few pictures. Wandering down the road, I looked down at the St. Francis River and saw the mist rising off of the river. It was breathtaking.
I continued to explore, seeing dew-beaded tendrils of spiderweb–it was as though a queen had taken her collection of her finest jewelry and laid them amongst the grass and flowers to admire in the morning light. Taking my new micro lens and examining a spiderweb, I marveled at the perfection of the craft and believed whole-heartedly that this world was handcrafted by a marvelous, creative God. I breathed it in, and felt so free.
As the mist lifted, I flew down the country roads in my beloved car–exploring the countryside and marveling at its beauty. Again, I talked to God about everything and nothing–stopping every now and then to harmonize along with the worship CD in my car stereo. My breath was taken away by the sight of a lake, and by some green, rolling hills–and the words of a worship song brought tears to my eyes and I was filled with the Holy Spirit. Eventually in my adventure I found Tiemann Shut-Ins, and I parked my trusty ol’ car and decided to go on a hike.
It was far warmer than it had been previously, and I removed my layers and layers of clothes and let only a tank-top separate me from the sunrays beaming down from a cloud-filled sky. I set out with camera and purse, and tucked a small book in my purse. The hike along the mighty, powerful river was easy, but full of beauty. I set off the trail a few times to enjoy the view of the river, and eventually I worked up the curiosity to explore it a bit–I stood on bluffs above the river, feeling very much like some Native American surveying the land. I dared to get closer, stepping down the rocks and nearing the river–it grew louder and louder the closer I got. I could feel the energy it exuded.
Gingerly I stepped out on river-smoothed rocks, getting closer and closer to the roaring river. I had worked my way out into it, and probably would have gone farther if I hadn’t my camera and purse to worry about. There on a large, smooth rock surrounded by rushing rapids, I sat down and read my book. Then I paused and prayed. And then I was silent, hoping God would speak to me. “Is there anything you’d have me hear from you, Lord?” I asked. I tried to be patient, and listen for once. Nothing.
I asked again. Waited. Nothing. Again, I asked–feeling somewhat disappointed as I heard nothing.
I laughed to myself, thinking: “Geez, Lord–I finally shut up and try to give you a chance, and you’ve nothing to say to me?”
I closed my eyes and tried again. Eventually, I just enjoyed the sound of the rushing river around me and the feeling of the sunlight on my shoulders, slowly giving me a sunburn. It was then that I felt shadows pass swiftly over me again, and I looked up to see three hawks, circling above me once again. I felt the hair on my neck raise up, and I felt my throat tighten.
He is with me.
I don’t know what it was about those three hawks circling high above me, but somehow I felt His presence as soon as I noticed them. I got up and navigated my way back onto the path. I walked and talked aloud, hoping that no one would see or hear me.
No one was on the path, though. Just me and God.
I had a meaningful heart-to-heart with God. I confessed a few things deep in my heart, and I brought some issues that needed healing before Him (some of which I’ll blog about later). At one point, I did feel that He was right beside me, listening to me as we walked. I’d stop along the path here and there … maybe to investigate a flower or dip my hand into a brook–touch a moss-covered stone. The smell of wisteria was in the air, and songbirds chattered and sang to each other high above me. I thanked Him for each and every bit of it.
He made all of this, I thought to myself–amazed. To some extent, I almost thought I could hear Him say, “Do you like it? Are you pleased?” I smiled, as this appealed to the artist in me. I felt close to Him, feeling as though I was walking through His art gallery, and He was showing me all of his beautiful creations. “I think it’s beautiful and amazing,” I said out loud.
He made ME!
I thanked Him for making me, and making me creative like Him. Like an artist in a gallery, I walked through the forest–taking in each and every sight now. I marveled at the textures and compositions. I wondered what each thing meant, too–as I stopped to admire His work. Soon everything I encountered became symbolic. The three petaled purple flower was now reminiscent of the trinity, clothed in a royal purple. The babbling brook refreshed, and was the water of life. A green inchworm rappelled down an invisible string of silk and met my eye, and twirled like an acrobat–writhing gracefully in the breeze. As I rounded a corner filled with jutting rocks, a lizard scurried out from the crevices and mounted the pinnacle of the rock and began to do what appeared to be push-ups. Recognizing this as some sort of intimidation tactic, I said to him: “Whoa, okay … I get the picture, little guy. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll just be on my way.” I could have sworn I heard God saying, “Perhaps he is trying to impress you.” I laughed and went on my way.
A good bit down the trail, I heard a rustle in the plants by my feet and I glanced down just in time to see a black and yellow snake double over himself. He was about to cross my path, but saw me coming and slithered back under himself and turned to watch me go. He was a good size snake, in my mind. The largest snake I had ever seen in the wild. He was as thick as cucumber and looked to be at least 3 feet long. I stopped short of him, and was startled–but not too startled to avoid taking pictures of him. They didn’t turn out–I had been metering for bright objects and the moment caught me off guard and I didn’t change my camera settings. But I watched him–his beautiful pattern reminded me of Native American bead work, and his gracefulness surprised me. (I later looked him up on the internet; I believe him to be a Plains Garter Snake). He didn’t seem afraid, but curious. After watching each other for a bit, he slowly made his way back into the woods.
I walked briskly now, a little nervous over that encounter and what it might’ve been–if I hadn’t seen him and perhaps stepped on him! Alone and out in the woods? He didn’t appear to be poisonous–his head was rounded; but what if? I brought it to God, and asked Him to protect me from harm while I was alone out in the woods and I didn’t worry about it anymore. In fact, I thanked Him for showing me that gorgeous snake. Before the hike was over, I saw another snake bathing in a pool of water down by the river. He was tiny, but I still kept my respectful distance. Looking up into the light pouring through the canopy, I saw the trio of hawks soaring overhead.
Yes, Father–I see that You are with me.
Coming out of the woods, I knelt by the rushing river and cupped my hands in the cold water and washed myself off a little. Living water, I thought. My thoughts turned to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The water was so cool, so crisp–so clear. Dipping my hands in it made me thirsty. I thought of the Samaritan woman at the well, and thought about what it would be like to encounter Jesus–who knows you and your struggles, and invites you to be refreshed in Him.
Lord, you bid all who are thirsty to come and drink of your living water. I am thirsty, Jesus–I want to drink of your Living Water.
I returned to the campsite, feeling very sun burnt but very much alive. I sat down to pray for a while, and then I played some more worship songs. I read the Word, and sang some more. Then I sat on the log by the fire pit and the smells of the campfires from other now occupied sites and the sounds of other voices of humans filled me with nostalgia and longing for a time in which I had someone by my side. Father, I am so lonely … I began. I know I should be completely satisfied by you, but the desires of my heart keep taking me to that place where I long for a companion. Is it wrong, Lord? If you want me for yourself, Lord–then please take this longing away. Take this cup–this loneliness–and fulfill me with You, Father.
I reclined in my hammock, and watched the sun start its descent into the treeline. I felt calm, peaceful–serene. But so lonely–I wished I could have someone to share this with, and I felt ashamed to know that I wanted someone other than God to share it with. I was sad; sad to know that He wasn’t enough for me. I want You to be enough, Jesus, My heart said. There are those moments, Lord–those moments that I am content with You and only You–and I would follow You anywhere, even if it’s just You and I. Help me to rest in those moments; take this horrible longing away. With this silent prayer in my heart, I fell asleep in the hammock, rocking gently in the breeze.
As dusk began to fall, I was awakened by the sound of small footsteps and a cold, damp touch on my hand. A dog had wondered into my campsite, and touched its nose to my hand. I believe I had seen the dog wondering around the back roads that morning in the company of another dog while I was driving around; I had slowed down so that I didn’t hit them.
As I came to from my nap, the dog wagged its tail at me and I reached down to pet him. I smiled and fetched him some bread from my car, tearing off the spice-encrusted crust and giving him the insides of it. He took it in his mouth and tore pieces from it by placing his paw on top of it. I fed him several pieces of bread and spent a bit of time petting him. “Good boy,” I said, patting his head and his back. All the while, he wagged his tail and followed me around the campsite as I got up to fill the lid of the cooler with a bottle of water. He drank, and then he circled around a few times by the hammock and laid down. While he napped, I got up and played some worship music, and watched him as he got up, circled and laid down again, in a different spot. Eventually, he approached me with a wagging tail and I reached down to give him a pat. He spent a good bit of time with me, and then he trotted down the road as suddenly as he had come. I watched him leave and wondered if God had sent him here to keep me company. My heart hoped that the dog was a sign of things to come … that God would provide me with a loyal, loving companion who could appreciate my generous, loving heart. I laughed to myself, thinking: “Perhaps this wasn’t a sign at all, and it was God’s final answer–Here’s a dog.” I love symbolism, but I often fear that I take it too far. My desperate heart was searching for something. Lord, take this desperation from me. I thanked him for the gift of a companion in my loneliness and left it at that–a blessing.
That night, I watched the sun go down from my hammock in the trees, and I listened as the wind blew through the leaves and the forest began to come to life. I heard rustling from other campsites, and the sounds of other campfires. There was nothing to do, nothing I could do–and I was content in that. Laying there under the trees and watching as the stars began to appear, I started to wonder what drives us to such frantic places in our lives–places where we can’t drink in the night, the stars–the simple beauty. It’s a romantic thought. It’s the language of the eternal romance that He has set out before us. The Sacred Romance. As the night became dark, I saw a few fireflies. I smiled. I love fireflies–they’re my favorite part of the summer. It’s spring, though–and I thought them to be far out of season. What a lovely surprise. I began to pray once again for the intentions of those who had asked for prayer, and for those who didn’t ask. And it wasn’t long until I drifted off to sleep–only to wake this morning.
I rose with the sun. It’s easy to do when there’s little separating you from it. The world was covered in dew, and I stretched as I faced the sun.
“Good morning, Lord,” I said “You are risen.”
I sat on my little log and read through all of the gospels about how Jesus had risen from the dead. How beautiful a story; I could only imagine the joy his disciples must have felt. I wondered what it must have felt like to be Jesus, too–was he sore? Tired? Aching? He was human, too, after all.
He was hungry. And so was I. I hadn’t had much to eat in the past three days and my stomach growled somewhat like whatever that beast was in the forest on the first night of my camping.
I packed up the camp and headed to the vault toilet before I set out on the two-hour drive. As I walked the path to the bathroom, the little dog who had kept me company ran excitedly down the road towards me, tail wagging. As he met me, he jumped up on me with both paws embracing me enthusiastically. I pet him and gave him a belly-rub and wished him a happy easter, and after I had emerged from the bathroom he followed me to my campsite to bid me farewell. I could see him follow me for a bit in my rear-view mirror, and then I saw him stop and watch as I left.
It was early, and I enjoyed the empty road and the fresh air. I was excited about joining civilization once again, even though I had found more civility out in the wilderness. The world looks different with resurrected eyes. At the beginning of the trip, I prayed for the “old me” to die with Christ on the cross and for me to be made new with Him … and I believe He will make me new; continue to make me new.
This Easter has been filled with unimaginable beauty, and I have a heart that’s full of Christ’s love. I’m so glad that He came to redeem us all–that the curtain was torn and that someone like me could spend the weekend with the Creator of the Universe … all thanks to Christ’s works on the cross. That He would face all the pain, suffering–and worst of all, God turning away from Him–for me? For sinners? That’s an amazing love.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you.