Embracing Wilderness

26 02 2011

I remember that first solitary retreat I had in the Smokies. I was ready for some solitude…ready for some renewal…ready for some time in the mountains and in the woods. So I found myself in the small town of Townsend, Tennessee just outside the national park and on the first morning, I left just before dawn headed for Cades Cove. In past years I had enjoyed Cades Cove’s eleven-mile loop – its history, its beauty, and its wildlife (turkeys, deer, birds, bears) – from a car’s view. But I wanted the relationship to go a bit deeper this time. So I parked my car just inside the cove and headed for the Rich Mountain Loop trailhead. I was feeling alive. I was feeling the renewal I was seeking. I was heading into the woods – into the wilderness – with excitement and an adventuresome spirit.

As I trekked deeper into the forest – higher into the mountains, I was taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds: an occasional view back over the cove or a deer sighting…the rustic smell of earth and the sweet smell of Frazier firs…the melodic conversations of birds ringing in the air. Deer, birds…no turkey yet…no bear – yet.

You ever have those moments when the reality of the present moment becomes so vivid and clear? This was one of those moments. I became starkly aware…I was in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness, on a trail that did not see a lot of traffic (half way through a nine-mile hike and not a human seen nor heard, that’s what I wanted, right?), where I have no bars on my phone, and it was a real possibility I could cross paths with a bear. On past drives around Cades Cove I saw bears from the safety of my car, but for some reason it didn’t really register that bears don’t just hang out on roadsides waiting for people to take their pictures! “What am I doing here? In the middle of the woods? All alone?” And now my brain recalled that the Great Smoky Mountains trail map in my backpack had a box dedicated to “Bears – Guidelines for Your Safety.” What didn’t I get about the words bears and safety when studying the map that would lead me into the wild?

When I came back to myself, I recognized the emotion rising up…fear! My awareness became heightened…my senses on high alert. I was now listening – perceiving things – out of fear. Turning back was becoming a plausible option. I wasn’t quite half way into my hike any way and my legs ached from the steep climb. I could cut my hike short, turn back, and cover ground that would now be familiar…returning to the safety of my little box known as a car.

But, I also noticed that the surfacing fear within was laced with the thrill of adventure with which I began my journey. My DNA was whispering, “Finish what you started.” I leaned back into the solitude surrounding me – and with the sights, sounds, and smells of mountain forest still lingering, I stepped deeper into the wilderness.

I am reminded of the Israelites fleeing into the wilderness as Pharaoh’s army pursued. Could it be that wilderness can be a refuge…a sanctuary? There must have been fear – heightened awareness…senses on alert. Was it laced with excitement…anticipation…a sense of adventure…of freedom? Then days turned into weeks; weeks into months; months into years…still in the wilderness. The Israelites, discouraged, restless, and fearful – wanted to go back to Egypt! They would choose chains over freedom…death over life? At least in Egypt they knew what to expect…it was comfortable…like a box. But through struggle…through conflict…through unrest…through sitting in their own darkness, they noticed the lingering sights, sounds, and smells of Yahweh’s promise, “I AM will lead you. I love you.” In the midst of uncertainty and the unknown the Israelites stepped further into the wilderness. It was in their DNA. They had to be true to who they were called to be. Who knew? It was in the wilderness where the Israelites heard God more clearly…where they came to know themselves more fully – more wholly.

Could it be so with us? Do we dare step into the wilderness? Do we dare stay there until the promise land opens for us? I suspect it depends on which voices we heed – fear, power, ego, status quo…or, the Voice within that calls us to seek God; to lay down our chains and live in freedom; to live life abundantly. Wilderness living is not easy…but, is it worth it? This is the question each of us must answer as we peer into a mirror…as we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness.




Losing Your Life…

19 02 2011

It calls to me like a stranger. Yet, somewhere…somewhere deep down, it sounds like a voice calling me home – “let go”. It’s a scary, risky offer. If I choose this path, for real transformation to occur, I know it’s not a one-time decision. It’s not like getting an immunization shot – once and your good for life. This will be a process…a journey…a pilgrimage. I will struggle…I will get frustrated…I will fail…I will feel I am on my own – alone. But, there will be times of pure, unspeakable joy; times of deep freedom that no dictator could suppress; times when I will feel at home in my own skin – peace; times when I will know, without a doubt, that I am loved to the core, with an authentic love that continually pursues me. All through life, these times of shadows and these times of light will mingle – creating a rhythm…a dance.

As of late, this invitation to let go has been persistent, presenting itself in many forms, in a variety of places and spaces – often surprising me. Its echoes pursue me from familiar text heard as a child:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. Matthew 16:25 (NIV)

It seeps into the ordinary routines of life like checking my email (a daily quote, Daily Faith, I receive from Well for the Journey):

“To let go means to give up coercing, resisting, or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are, without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them…. It’s akin to letting your palm open to unhand something you have been holding onto.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life


“[I]t is essential to learn ways to free ourselves from the artificial and unnecessary limits we impose …This liberation involves recognizing and letting go of old structures and boundaries …”-Thomas Plante and Carl E. Thoresen, Spirit, Science and Health

The invitation saturates the air as musical lyrics and notes play in songs like Get Up Early by Maggie Sansone (Dance Upon the Shorewww.maggiesansone.com) and Let it Go and Vista by David Wilcox (Vistawww.davidwilcox.com)

It interrupts my thoughts as I walk through the day – a mixture of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, with the whispers of the Spirit within me: “Greg, let go the reins of your wild wonderful life.” It haunts me as I watch loved ones slowly and unwillingly let go of themselves…loose themselves, to dementia and Alzheimer’s – where the present moment is the most important moment.  And I experience this invitation as a fire deep in my gut – a desire to…a movement toward…a welling up of – letting go. “Lose yourself Greg…loosen your grip…hold things lightly.”

My response more often than not?: ”What? Lose myself? But I’ve worked so hard to find my self…all that therapy…all that confrontation…all that struggle…I’m just finding myself – now I’m being asked to loose myself?”

But I’m learning…slowly…through daily struggles and by loosening my grip (one finger at a time) – letting go of all I think I want or need. And, I am learning that this kind of loosing myself is not the same as before…when I had no sense of self. With this losing, there is a gaining…there is a discovery of my true God-created self. I’m finding my life…abundant life. It’s like giving myself away only to receive myself back again…a little closer to wholeness.

So this is my struggle – do I accept this invitation…today?  Do I want to find – save – my life by losing it? Are the stakes that high? (I’ve lost myself before…to the point I wasn’t sure I existed). Some days I’m just not sure it’s worth it…other days I want nothing more…I want to take deep gulps of the freedom this path brings. It’s like hitting that one, sweet golf shot among all the bad ones…that one shot that keeps you coming back. It’s like among all those botched recipe trials, creating that one perfect dish that drives you to get your hands messy again.

Today, I hit a good shot…the recipe was a success. Tomorrow another invitation will be waiting for me when I awake. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

What invitation is waiting for you?



12 02 2011

The question had been whirling around inside me for some time – I just hadn’t tagged it with a name. It was weaving itself together in my subconscious…that deep part of me. This question was birthed early in my life…it’s inevitable in our maturation. However, I cannot remember when natural wondering went underground – nor can I remember the reason. I suspect it was partly in my family’s genetics – passed along to each generation. I imagine it had some to do with my Southern culture. I know it had to do some with my faith community. I know my learned theology was trying to protect me – and others. So I was encouraged to stay on safe shores and discouraged from venturing into the depths of questioning. Questioning, especially questioning God, was treading on shaky ground. But this question was growing inside me none-the-less. At times it surfaced as curiosity. It would visit me while I lay in my bed staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep. As a child, it confronted my spirit when our dog, Ginger, died. It brought along confusion as its companion when Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. Its energy pushed against my chest with the suicide of my uncle and a high school classmate. And then, there was the accidental death of my uncle only eight feet from me. Shutdown…numbness – I can’t recall much about my life the year after I felt death’s breath so close. The question seemed to go into hibernation. But time passed, and my frozen feelings began to thaw. I began to hear the heartbeat of the question once again – louder and louder. Understanding was elusive –confusion, grief, questions grew louder and louder. I tried to suppress all of it – the feelings, the beating, the questions – but they would not keep quiet. They pierced the mask of solitude and “togetherness” I was wearing in the presence of others. The question was pounding inside my head and inside my chest…my spirit was disturbed. “There had to be something wrong with me?” “There was something wrong with my faith?” “I did not have enough of it…that had to be the explanation.” “I have to make myself be more faithful. I have to bury these ungodly thoughts, feelings, and questions within me.”

Finally, one night after a campfire meeting at Look-Up Lodge, a summer camp where I was working – to a wide open, starry sky the question could no longer be contained…I acknowledged its presence and yelled its name…“Why?!!!” And as I shouted, I knew I was directing all of what I carried at the One who I had thought…who I had been taught…to never question. With the unchaining of this question, I was acknowledging a living relationship with my Creator.

It felt so good! It felt so scary! I felt relief! I felt guilt while tapes of past expectations – of rules I was breaking – played in my head!

I understand to some extent why my faith community had tried to protect me from questioning God. The new land I had entered came with freedom, and with this freedom came the possibility of turning from my faith; the possibility of living in bitterness; the possibility of making my home within rage and anger; the possibility of reverting back to what was comfortable: suppressing feelings…suppressing thoughts…suppressing questions…cutting off God. But this land also offered abundant life. It offered me the opportunity to feel again – feelings created out of the image of God. It offered a way to live through grief, pain, anger, hurt and loss that was dwelling in me…that was poisoning me. This land invited exploration – exploration of self; exploration with others; exploration with and into God. This land encouraged community – taking off masks that separates us from living in relationship as God intended; walking with others; learning with others; being with others; serving others…serving with others. This landscape is filled with the wonderful colors of God. It comes with an invitation for an ever-deepening intimacy with the One who knows the deepest parts of us and loves us best.

Most likely, you, too, have had questions well up in you born of pain, confusion, or intrigue…from life changing experiences. For some of us, it is not easy asking hard questions of God. Courage has to be mustered…genetics has to be accounted for…the cost has to be calculated – do we dare move away from what has been; from what has been expected? Do we dare take steps into a new adventure…a life long, life-changing adventure? There will be “lenten” times – filled with hard self-reflection…where the Light shines into our shadows and darkness. There will be “Holy Week” times – times when it is hard to see the week’s end…hurt, pain, confusion, dread, weariness, and despair seems as if it will never end…the threat of our spirit’s impending death is ever before us…where the answer to the questions we ask of God may be silence. There will be “Easter” times – those times when hope wins the day…when we breath in fresh air and we are reminded that God will never leave us…when we celebrate…when we know we are loved. We are resurrected within and without. These are the seasons of our lives…a process – the inward listening, the passion, the resurrection – and with each, an opportunity of a growing intimacy with God.

A new season is almost upon us…what questions would you offer?


Forgiveness Found in Shattered Wood

6 02 2011

Several years ago my wife and I decided to add on to our house.  When it was time, our friend, Bill (a carpenter), asked me round the edges on the flat boards for our new staircase. As I ran the router over the first piece, I watched, and felt, right-angled edges transform into a rounded surface! Immediately, my childhood awe of watching my dad carve letters in wooden signs filled my imagination – the enchantment with wood…its smell…its character…the thrill of transformation.

This experience brought about a new awakening and a desire to learn about woodworking. So the adventure began – chip carving, relief carving, scroll sawing, and most recently woodturning. My friend, an experienced woodturner, became my teacher – in which tools to invest, how to use them, and turning techniques.

So with modest tools, my new used lathe, and some time, I ventured deep into the Cochran Cave (our garage) on a Saturday morning and put tool to wood in an attempt to turn my first solo piece. I remember my friend saying that the wood on the lathe would speak and guide me as to what it desired to be. So I watched, and listened, as wood shavings flew off the wooden canvas. A chalice – that’s what was speaking…emerging. My excitement grew. The concave cup began to take shape. The cuts felt smooth beneath my hands…I was doing it! I moved to form the stem and base. I stopped occasionally to check this project of co-creation. The color and grain of the wood was going to be beautiful. I made one last cut and was satisfied.

“I’ve done it,” I assured myself with pride. “Just the sanding and staining.” I reminded myself not to try anything fancy – to keep it simple. As I turned the lathe on and began sanding, I noticed the lip of the chalice was not completely even. “Not to worry,” I thought,  “I can sand it down.” Another check of the chalice, revealed a couple of tool marks at the top of the cup. “I can remove these – no problem.” I retrieved my gouge and removed the tool marks. “This is so great,” I thought as my head began to swell. “People will be so impressed! They will sing songs about me! They’ll put this beautiful chalice in the National Gallery! I will become famous!”

However, as I turned the lathe on again I noticed the lip was not perfect. “I can take care of that.” I ignored the voice inside telling me that it was good enough…to keep it simple. Stubbornly…pride fully…I put the tool to the chalice again. CRACK!!! It wasn’t until after the chalice had exploded off the lathe and was in two pieces on the garage floor, that I came to myself and turned the lathe off. Like a little boy with a broken toy, I picked up the two pieces and tried to fit then back together. It wasn’t going to happen. I stood in disbelief! “Why did I do that?” All I had to do was to sand and stain – to keep it simple. I stood in silence. I couldn’t take it back.

We all have experiences like this in life – intentionally or not – we mess up. Some of our “mess-ups” cost us little – some sadness…some frustration…we get over them without much emotional or physical energy expended. Other “mess-ups”, however, may cause us – and others – great pain: deep grief, so deep it’s easy to bury it so that others (so we) can no longer see it. It plants shame deep into the soil of our soul. Its roots spread and drain the pool of what brings us joy. Some “mess-ups” generates great anger – at ourselves…at circumstances…at others. Anger so intense that we become afraid of ourselves; we are afraid of the power we might unleash, of the damage we may leave in our wake. Our “mistakes” leave us with a wish we could take words or actions back. We want a “do over”. We wish some things had never happened; that we had not made certain decisions. We want to make it right. We want redemption…we want forgiveness.

We know forgiveness as a word. We have heard others talk about it…stories of those who have experienced it. And we know, intellectually, that forgiveness is available and a possibility for everyone – for you and for me. If you are a person of faith, you have most likely been taught that as we bring our mistakes before God, God moves to forgive us. We are assured we can start over…God’s grace is endless. We have been told…we have been taught…we are supposed to believe… that God’s love for us is unconditional – no strings attached. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.

The question is, do we REALLY believe this…deep down in our soul? Do we believe God will hold up God’s end of the bargain? Will God really forgive us? I have to be honest – sometimes I’m not sure. And, as I follow these questions deeper, I find the real crux is that I’m not so sure I am willing to accept God’s gift…I’m not sure I’m forgivable. So the questions turn – do I believe I am forgivable? Do you believe you are forgivable? Do we believe we are worth forgiving? If so, can we forgive ourselves? Can we accept forgiveness? Can we let go of…release…the shame, grief, and anger we hold? Again, I have to be honest, many times I don’t…I can’t. Not alone.

What I do know is this – those times when I have accepted forgiveness; when I remember what it feels like to have accepted God’s gift of forgiveness…of unconditional love; those times when I have forgiven myself; when I have done the hard work of uprooting my shame, digging up my grief, or unleashing my anger and offering it to God – It’s those times when I have felt the most free, the most compassionate, the most grace-filled and gracious. Not to say there won’t be nicks, stains, and scars. Forgiveness is a process. God never said our past experiences would vanish. God did say, “I’ll never leave you.” Once I tasted that freedom…that Presence – my craving runs deep.

So there I stood with shattered wood in my hand…and the thought came, “The stem looks like a candle holder.” The forgiveness process began. The walnut candleholder now sits in my office as a symbol of God’s forgiveness and of my forgiveness of self. It is a symbol of the potential that lies in what looks like destruction and chaos. It is a reminder to be forgiving toward others and self, and to be a vessel of God’s presence in the world, and to be mindful of the potential ministry in each moment. It is the holder of the Light.