This, my friends, is the last of the summer reruns. I ran this story several months ago and broke it into four separate posts. Today, however, I have taken the liberty of running it as one long, meandering, 3,000+ word Epic post, because it is one of my favorite pieces that I’ve written. Consider it a time-consuming gift. So, you might want to get that cup of coffee before sitting down to read it. Or, you could print it out and read on your train commute in to work tomorrow. Or, for those of you ADD-types who are just too jittery, you may just decide to skip it all together. In any case, come back later this week, when Shrinking the Camel launches the Fall Season, with all new episodes!
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Last September I took a vacation with God. It wasn’t anything elaborate or expensive. I simply felt like we needed time alone together – just me and God without the many distractions of work, emails, cell phone calls, and the beloved family.
Let’s call it a Godcation. And why not? First there was the Mancation, which gained popularity earlier in the decade, where the guys would get away to blow off steam and escape the daily grind. Typically the Mancation involved outdoor adventures, or Harley rides, or gambling extravaganzas in Vegas. Next was the Staycation, which, in today’s economic climate, is experiencing a big resurgence in popularity. This is where you take your vacation time at home.
Now, I’d like to recommend another new trend, using personal vacation time for spiritual growth.
I never considered a Godcation as unusual or creepy or anything of that sort. However, I must admit that on more than one occasion upon mentioning it to an acquaintance, to one who was perhaps less spiritually inclined than I, the response I got was generally a vacant, confused stare.
“Hey, Brad! Where were you last week?”
“Oh, I took a few days off to get away. I was up in the mountains.”
“Wow, that sounds great! You and the family?”
“Uh… no. It was just me.”
” ” (Awkward silence.)
“Alone?” They furrow their brow and tilt their heads inquisitively, trying to guess whether it’s because of a mental health breakdown or the instability of my marriage.
“Yeah, alone. It was kind of a retreat, I guess.”
“Oh. What did you, um….do?”
“Plenty. I went hiking, I read, I wrote. I prayed a lot. Actually I kept very busy.”
“Alone?” they ask again, this time with a nervous laugh, the kind that says “He’s joking, right?”
“Yeah, like I said. Alone”
By this point in the conversation, my friend has veered so far out of his spiritual comfort zone that he feigns a doctor’s-office cough and grasps for something to physically hold on to while he scans the room to regain his orientation. Then he walks away slowly or changes the subject.
People think that a full grown, married, professional business man going off by himself into the mountains is just straight-out weird. They are not comfortable with the idea of alone. Alone with God is even scarier. Sure, they’re thinking, it’s okay if that same idea came from their nutcase cultish cousin, or maybe their priest or rabbi, but from Bradley? A normal, productive member of our Bucks County society? He’s going too far off the ledge.
It would probably be more acceptable if I told them I was going to a monastery or a Buddhist retreat center. “Oh, by all means!” they’d say. “I read in the New York Times about this wonderful retreat center in the Poconos run by the Benedictine Order of monks. Did you know they serve only locally raised organic food? It sounds just divine!” And in truth, some day I may check in to a monastery, too. A friend of mine seeks out these monasteries on a regular basis, three, four times a year, where he parks and unloads his spiritual baggage for a few days. There in silence, he meditates and consults with God on business, family, and his personal growth. Typically he writes long and passionate letters to God while he is there. What’s interesting is that before the retreat is over, God usually writes him back.
I’ve checked out some of those retreat centers, and I am a bit dismayed to report that they are generally quite spartan. I prefer to treat God to a bit more upscale furnishings, so we tend to gravitate more towards the Great Lodges in the Adirondacks. I rent a small room for two or three nights where I can sit in a comfortable, over-stuffed chair, smell the wood smoke of the crackling fire all evening, and wake up to the sound of loons on the lake. It’s here, in the quiet midst of these ancient and beautiful mountains spread deep with a blanket of balsam fir, where they loom mightily over placid hollows of silver-blue lakes, here is where I think, pray, read and commune with the Almighty.
I have taken a Godcation every year for the past four years. This past September was not unlike the others, except that God gave me a bit of a scare. I think He was playing with me, and wanted to teach me a lesson. Well, that He did.
* * * * * *
When the appointed time came for this year’s Godcation, I grabbed my journal, a good pen, my hiking boots, a backpack and a dorky-looking poncho. I loaded them into the car, and drove off into the sunrise to meet up with God in the great Adirondack Mountains.
The Adirondacks are a pristine swath of six million acres of preserved land in upstate New York. There are 42 high peaks interspersed with a multitude of lakes, and expansive stretches of rural wilderness that go on for miles. It is an ideal place to get away, to be alone with God. Sure, a few people get lost out there every year. It is a big place after all. But those unfortunate souls usually get into trouble because of plain old-fashioned stupidity. Each month, Aridondac magazine devotes a few pages to an intriguing section called “The Accident Report,” where the park rangers report on these “incidents.” It’s the best part of the magazine:
“There were two incidents in late April that were caused by deep snow remaining long after hikers thought Spring had arrived.” Apparently a couple of guys and a girl were hiking the monster Whiteface Mountain dressed only in shorts and sneakers. They continued for several hours hiking the mountain, in spite of running into snow, eventually up to four feet deep. “Here they decided to call 911 for help.” Duh. Stupid kids. Why do all the young people insist on wearing shorts these days, even in the winter?
And here’s another good one. “Other incidents included a heart attack death of a fifty-three-year old male at Slant Rock.” Poor sucker. I wonder how long it was before they found him. If he was alone it could have been days before they realized he was a goner, and then a few more before they found him. Shoulda kept up with the workouts, buddy! Yeah, and maybe you could have laid off the cheesecake, too. Fat guy thinks he can hike the Adirondacks. What was he thinking?
I consulted the Lord with my trusty hiking guide, and we carefully selected the first day’s hike: Hoffman’s Notch. This trail was particularly appealing because it was not far from the lodge we were staying at, and although it was a seven mile trail, the vertical rise was only three hundred feet. In other words, it was an easy hike. “Handsome streams, waterfalls and upland marshes edge the trail in its entire length,” the guidebook said. Sounds beautiful. I figured I could hit the trail mid-morning, hike for a few hours, then turn around and get back to the lodge in time for dinner. God agreed heartily with my excellent plan.
By the time I reached the trailhead, the sky was turning a stubborn grey overcast. But I wasn’t going to let a few clouds bother me. Besides, I had that poncho in my backpack in case it rained. I parked the car, got out and found the signs marking the start of the trail. I took in a deep breath, relishing the scent of balsam evergreens, the smells and sounds of the forest, and the sheer joy of having uninterrupted time alone with God.
I had prepared a meditative hike for today, drawing from the words of the Psalms to reflect on God’s goodness. That would be a good way to start off the Godcation, to get us on a good spiritual footing. There was much to be grateful for, and I hadn’t nearly thanked God as much as I should.
The first few hundred yards of the hike were like a stroll down an off-country lane. The trail offered wide, roomy paths, and every so often a sturdy bridge crossed over one of those handsome streams that was mentioned in the guidebook. I began reciting words of praise and gratefulness in time with my steps, taking in the beauty of the forest along the way. Soon the path became more narrow and uneven, meandering through a forest that was becoming increasingly dense. Even though it had only been a few minutes, I felt a million miles from civilization. Not a sole to be seen. All alone in the big woods. Unfortunately, it was here that another thought crossed my mind, a non-grateful thought, interrupting my words of praise. “Gosh, I really am quite alone out here. What if….” I tried to discipline my thoughts. Oh, come now, Bradley, you’re a big boy. You’ve hiked in these mountains since you were a teenager. “Yeah, but what if I have a heart attack like the guy in the Incident Report? He wasn’t much older than me. Yes, I could have a heart attack. No one would find me for days!” I checked my pulse. Was that a shooting pain down my arm? A low grade anxiety crept up and hung by my side, dogging my steps as I delved deeper and deeper into the dark recess of the black forest. What if what if what if what if?? I couldn’t stop thinking about the fifty-three-year-old-male in the Accident Report. That could happen to anybody. I mean, at least any male who is closing in on the age of fifty.
* * * * * *
The trails in the Adirondacks are marked with colorful tin circles, about four inches in diameter, that are nailed to the trees every several dozen yards or so. The paths you are supposed to follow on any particular trail are usually clear-cut, but they can become iffy at times, especially when crossing some thick patches of forest. But if you look up every now and then, sure enough, the friendly yellow circles will greet you at a forthcoming tree, saying, “Hello again, friend! Yes, you are on the right track! Continue this way towards more delights of the Adirondack forest!” I became very attached to these yellow markers on this hike, as they were a point of security, confirming that I was not veering off into a fortnight of survival skills in six million acres of the wild.
As my hike continued, it started raining and then gradually progressed from a sprinkle to a more committed precipitation. No problem, I told myself. A rainy day in the Adirondacks with God is better than a thousand elsewhere. I tried to focus once again on the glories of God’s natural woodlands, in an effort to distract myself from thinking about The Man Who Died From a Heart Attack While He was Hiking. There was a beautiful stream to my left, cut deep into a rocky gorge; with a series of cascading waterfalls marking it’s descent from one ledge to the next. I stopped to soak it in. Though, literally, now I was soaking, because the rain had advanced to a heavy downpour that demanded my full attention. I pulled out the bright orange poncho from my backpack and put it on, pulling the plastic hood over my head. I was now dry, but it felt like I was also participating in some kind of NASA echo chamber experiment – I heard a plastic reverb with every step, every breath, every pounding drip of rain. “Houston, we have a problem! I look like an idiot!”
I continue undeterred, persisting through the deluge. This is my time with God.
I started reciting to God a stream of phrases the Psalmist might use. “Thank you, Oh Lord, Praise you for your loving kindness and all your mercies. Bless your holy name, Oh my soul.” This was working. I concentrated more on my meditation. “Thank you for all your blessings, God you are magnificent, thank…you…umm…”
“Where did the trail go?”
I whipped my head in all directions, looking for a path. Nothing. Just a mirror of repeating generic forests on all sides. No trail. My heart started pounding. The adrenaline was pumping as my body geared up for a major fright event, even though I hadn’t really given myself enough time to confirm that I was lost.
“Remain calm!” I admonished myself. “God is with me.” But seriously, dude, where is the trail?
“Stay calm. I will not die out here. I will not die alone.”
Of course not. I will die together with God. He’ll be watching as I slowly wander in confused circles to a slow, protracted death on my Godcation. That must be His plan for me. Just accept it. “No, don’t be ridiculous. I can’t be that far off the trail.” I turned around and took a few steps from where I had been hiking, and searched frantically. No yellow markers. I walked a few steps to the left and scanned the forest. No yellow circles. I’m getting dizzy. It’s pouring. The visibility has become horrible. I noticed that my boots and socks are soaked right through, making squishy sounds with every step, like they are filled with jello. Lord, please help me. I’m verging on a flat-out panic attack.
I should not have made fun of those people in the Incident Reports. Surely, this is my well-deserved punishment.
After a few more minutes of wandering, I stopped altogether, leaned against a tree, and prayed. Lord, I am losing it. This is crazy. Help me to find the trail. I listened to the torrential pattering of the rain against the hood of my poncho, like the incessant clicking of a dozen typewriters. My team of writers sealing my fate with a tragic ending.
I regrouped. On a hunch, I took a few steps to the North, in the one direction I hadn’t covered yet. Sure enough, there in the distance, I made out a little yellow marker on a tree. “Hello, friend!” it said, in a squeaky, rattled little voice. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, then ran up and hugged the tree.
* * * * * *
I try to come off like I’m this confident, sophisticated and worldly professional. But when you drop me out in the middle of the wilderness on a rainy day with nothing but a backpack and a poncho, you can bet that within an hour or two the real truth comes out: I’m a basket case of fear, insecurity and doubt. Which is to say, I’m so full of crap. I had a sheepish feeling that perhaps this was God’s lesson for me today, as if He was sitting back in his chair with folded arms saying, “All right, Mister Smarty Pants, now that we’ve gotten that great truth out of the way, maybe we can try to get some real work done around here.”
It was time to turn around and head back to the car. I had enough of the rain and heart attacks and getting lost in the woods. The thought of a hearty dinner and fireplace waiting for me at the lodge became a much more appealing location to practice meditation. I trudged back along the trail, but instead of praying, this time I paid very close attention to those yellow trail markers. It was pouring, but there was a light kick in my step from the tremendous relief of finding the trail. I was lost, but now am found.
I thought about those yellow circles, how they reminded me of the consistency of God’s grace throughout the course of my life. All I know is, if we keep looking up, He’ll give us signs along the way. Maybe it comes as a word from a friend, or through a passage we read, or a coincidental circumstance. Somehow, if we’re paying attention, He gives us these little hints from time to time to let us know He’s got his eye on us, that we’re heading in the right direction. That things are going to be okay.
I was about an hour away from the trailhead, moving at a pretty good clip despite the soggy boots. Then the strangest thing happened. As I was booking along the trail at breakneck speed, suddenly, for absolutely no reason, I stopped dead in my tracks. I can’t say why. It wasn’t at all a conscious decision. I just stopped. I felt God prompting me.
“Look.” He said.
I turned to look off the side of the trail, and there, leaning gently against a tree, was a stick. A walking stick.
It was the perfect walking stick, just the right height. It was a strong piece of wood, with a slight curve to give it some good leverage. There was a shapely little crook for the hand at the upper end, and a smooth spot right at the top for my thumb. It looked like it had just dropped right out of the sky, a branch fallen off of it’s mother tree, landing in that exact spot. As I approached it, I felt as if this was the one walking stick in the world for me.
God’s presence suddenly overwhelmed the forest. It’s hard to explain. I don’t have words for it, but it somehow felt like, at that moment, God had decided to physically join me on the hike. Maybe it’s what Moses felt when he first saw that burning bush. I looked behind me, all around, but no one was there. It was as if God was playing a trick, like He planned a secret party for me at that tree. “Surprise!” He shouts, jumping out from behind the invisible curtain of infinite omnipresence. It scared me a little bit.
“Is this walking staff for me, God?” Of course at a time like this, calling it a staff rather than a stick sounds more appropriate, more biblical. The sound of a million raindrops pelting the bed of the vast forest floor gave a resounding Yes. Then, applause.
I reached out for the walking stick. “Thank you.” I whispered. Upon taking in the absolute beauty and strangeness of the gift, and this moment, I could only respond with a deep-felt sense of awe. I was overcome with reverence and humility. I worshipped Him. Surely, He was with me now.
It seems as if we are all bopping along in our lives, following our given paths, trying to pay attention so that we don’t get lost. And then, when you least expect it, God’s presence can sneak up right behind you while you’re not looking, and give you a friendly poke in the ribs. “Don’t scare me like that!” you say, startled. Laughing. Then you turn around and see who it is, and you fall to your knees.
The rest of my vacation with God was, comparatively speaking, uneventful. I read a couple of inspiring books, wrote to God in my journal, and spent a great deal of time in prayer. It was peaceful and restful. I used that walking stick on two more hikes. I kind of hoped people would pass by, notice the divine powers emanating from my special stick, and maybe ask me about it. No one did. I took the stick home with me, and now it lies on the hearth above my fireplace in the family room. Sometimes when I’m praying, I’ll pick it up and walk around the house with it as I pray. It reminds me that God’s presence is with me, even when I don’t know it.