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The Ecstasy in Being Brave

I have been reading about transcendent philosophy espoused by the likes of Emerson and Thoreau. Its main tenets are that man and (N)ature are inherently good, emphasizing the prime importance of the individual and individual freedom, as well as oneness with the universe. At its most basic, the idea teaches that there is a power deep inside of us that, when we tap it, allows us to become one with what we see, whether it’s a mountain, a constellation, a river, a sunset, a storm, or an animal.  It teaches that we have a light inside us that banishes darkness, leading us to know Truth, wisdom, and goodness. And, when all of this aligns within us, a deep delight, a visceral ecstasy-or transcendence-results.

As a student of the Bible, and the God who wrote it, it is disturbing to me that many of these transcendentalist ideas are woven into the weft and warp of the minds of people who seek out the wilderness. Why?  Because it gets everything horribly backwards.  I will let a simple chart do the talking:

Bible Transcendentalism
Sin is real, both in people and Nature All people and Nature are inherently good
God is light and Truth Each person is his own source of light & Truth
Worship of anything other than God is idolatry Nature and beauty should be worshiped
Knowing God brings delight Delight is a direct result of knowing myself
God is the only and the great, holy I AM I am God, my own deity and salvation

Still, to believe what the Bible says about all of this, you first have to believe in the reality of sin and evil in this world, and, more directly, in your own heart.

People who don’t know the God of the Bible don’t accept that we live in the tension between God’s goodness and the evil he has allowed.

They only want a loving God. They only want the light, the happiness, and the good things of God. But, for humans to have perfect freedom to choose how they live and what they believe, there has to be a choice. Life or death. Light or darkness.  Goodness or evil.  It is no wonder that these people cannot fathom how something so evil as the attack on the World Trade Center could happen in this day and age. People who know God, and understand that most of the world has chosen to reject him think, how could it not?

When Hugh got cancer we were all devastated. Sickness has a way of letting big questions scream at us. Why would God allow this suffering, especially for someone as good as Hugh? But our goodness is irrelevant –and irreverent- in the face of a holy, just, and good God. Sickness is just part of what it means to be human. So is death.  Mark and Hugh had been paddling together long before the leukemia showed up. They kept paddling during ten long years of treatments. Why?  What did the wilderness have to offer in dark and confusing times? It offered the chance to leave the distractions and torments behind: the doctor visits and hospital stays, the long, long road to an outcome that no one could predict, the fear, the hopeless feelings- all of it dropped out of sight the minute the two brothers stepped into their canoes.

We can go to Nature to be wowed. We can go to get away from the world’s brokenness. We can go to seek out the quiet places where God’s voice can be heard, where there are “moments when [we] can sense Him near [us], and [we] can never quite believe it.

He never condemns, He just sustains. He doesn’t judge, He understands. He gives [us] hope again, and says be brave.”[1]

The Walton brothers went out, not to find themselves, not to be their own light, not to become one with Nature, but to bathe in the balm of the unsullied wilderness, perfect in its minute and grand designs, just as God created it.

They went in brotherliness, to be bolstered with strength enough to be brave together in the dark shadow of Hugh’s illness.

They never went to attain ecstasy through oneness with a brilliant sunset. It was to know and treasure that they were one with the very God who made that sunset, knowing that they were loved, held and nurtured in spite of the specter of illness and death. If that’s not ecstasy, what is?

~J.A.P.Walton

[1]Bear Grylls.Facing the Frozen Ocean. Pan Books, UK.2013 (digital edition). p.105.

adventure, Adventure Tourism, Bryce Canyon National Park, Camping, Creation, Creator, Desert, God, hiking, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Mountains, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Praise, River, Starry Skies, Uncategorized, Water, wisdom, Zion National Park

Thin Air, Thick Dust, Beauty All Around

It is good to be home in Michigan after a 3-week spell in Arizona and Utah. Here, I can drink deep draughts of the autumnal palette of green, vermillion, orange and gold, reveling in this bounty of colors so much rarer in the western landscape.

Phoenix was particularly hot and dry where the greenish-yellow of the prickly pear and saguaro cacti stands in base-relief against the purple of distant mountains. Here, the only deep greens are on the golf course, watered with precious and dwindling flows from the Colorado River, and on the cell phone towers painted green to look like giant saguaros.

Climbing out of the desert into the high mesas to the north, the landscape changes in an instant. The cactus and sand give way to rock and bristlecone pine at the higher elevations. In appearance it seems an unforgiving landscape, but

the Hopi and Navajo have lived here for a thousand years, “thriving long in adverse conditions: poor soil, drought, temperature extremes, high winds.”*

Past the Grand Canyon and on into southern Utah, aspen join the autumn chorus, waving golden, glittering arms in gladness. Here, the weathered rock cathedrals tower, where sandstone is king, and sagebrush his queen as they reign over free-ranging cattle on a thousand hills. Here is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, those life-giving ribbons of water, home to the pronghorn antelope, nattering prairie dog, and swift peregrine falcon. Here, too, is Zion, a river-carved fortress of sheer honeyed walls, and Bryce, with its colorful hoodoo armies blown by winds like fine glass.( Zion National Park   and Bryce Canyon National Park )

It is an entirely different kind of wilderness than what we experience in northern Michigan and southern Ontario.  Here, damp, verdant, fertile. Out west, thin air thick with dust, where the only immediately visible abundance for hundreds of miles is rock. To be sure, both are beautiful in their own ways. Both point to an imaginative Creator, who paints with a bold and vibrant palette.  Both give us the same gifts that wilderness always gives: delight in its bigness, contentedness with our own smallness, hope that life and beauty abound wherever we find ourselves, and that

nothing on this earth is godforsaken at all.

~ J.A.P. Walton

* William Least Heat Moon. Blue Highways. Chapter 2.

adventure, Affirmation, Blessings, Creation, death, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, God, Heaven, Home, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outfitting, Peace, Prayer, Serving Others, Uncategorized

Do You Have a Purple Notebook?

If you had an hour to think about where you are headed, and why, what would you write down on your “outfitting” list?

We’ve begun a slow transition from the bluff back to Trout Creek, and the tall grasses and migrating birds are telltale signs that summer is nearly over. Normally at this time of year, the Walton brothers are busily outfitting for their annual fall paddle in the northern latitudes, when the hallowed and dog-eared purple notebook comes out with its years of collective wisdom- list upon list of gear, menus, and groceries that must be gathered before departure.

The brothers deeply enjoy the process of getting everything ready. As I write this, I have just put Hugh on a plane for Arizona to join 3 of his brothers for their paddle trip down the Colorado River.  He was lamenting that taking a trip with professional outfitters takes away much of the pleasure that the “doing for yourself” brings.  He was missing his purple notebook.

It is interesting to study the word outfit as a verb.  In wilderness jargon, it means to assemble the gear and necessities for an extended time away from civilization: water purification, camp stove, food, first aid kit, compass, tent, emergency distress signaling device, and the like. But it has made me think about whether or how we outfit for our everyday life. I tend to be a list maker, so it’s not a stretch to see how my adopted processes for daily tasks help me stay on course; a decades-old two-month menu cycle informs grocery shopping, and a bill-tracking database helps quickly settle accounts. Going to church every Sunday morning gives each week an anchor, adding stability and sanity into this busy life. Still, what do I DO on a regular basis to see to the proper “outfitting” of my life?  If I kept a small purple notebook of the necessities, what would it contain, and how would it keep me on a wise path? Do I enjoy the process of “getting ready” and what am I getting ready for?

When we were younger, this was easier to answer. We were saving money for a house down payment, for kids’ college, for retirement, and developing skills and talents that made us valuable in the workforce. We were learning our way through parenting, and, more recently, caring for our parents. We were studying Scripture and developing a deeper relationship with God and each other.

But what do I “outfit” for now, in retirement?  I am making new lists. They are less about preparing for the future as they are about understanding that the future is already here in the present. My own lament is in wondering how much “present” I missed all those years that were so focused on preparing for someday.  So, I find that the lists are evolving, much less focused on action and more focused on virtue.  Virtue? Yes. Character infused with godliness. It’s a high calling, and worth the study.

I believe in eternal life with God, which gives me a secure future that I didn’t fully appreciate in my younger years. A secured future gives us the freedom to take better care in and of the present.

My new set of lists is energized by prayer that God outfits me with grace, wisdom, contentment in any circumstance, and a truly benevolent heart for others.

Other things in my notebook (mine is blue) include to:

  • refrain from divisive speech
  • be the best listener in the room
  • honor my husband
  • cherish and dignify my mother’s final days
  • to appreciate creation in all its beauty and mystery
  • and to jump more readily with Isaiah’s enthusiastic response to God’s lament, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  And, Isaiah swiftly replied, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa 6:8)

~J.A.P. Walton

 

 

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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

We spent the past week at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This park is an emerald gem set between Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay and the wide and placid Tahquamenon River. One day we hiked from the river’s lower falls about 5 miles up to the upper falls along a well-loved trail that follows the river, traversing low wet bogs, and high dry forested ridges of cedar, hemlock, and oak. Each step along the river’s edge had me looking into dark, calm pools that surely were teeming with brook trout-oh for my fishing pole! The late summer flowers were lush despite the season’s lack of rain, mostly yellow and orange as the late bloomers tend to be- black-eyed Susan, butter-and-eggs (a sore throat treatment in the old days), tall, spiky mullein, and the delicate jewelweed. We saw little wildlife, though the pileated woodpeckers laughed at us all along the trail.

Near the upper falls we came across a large hemlock about 10” in diameter with a sign that said a hemlock with a circumference the size of a soda can would be about 100 years old. Things grow slowly where the arctic winds and snows of Lake Superior have hammered at the terrain for thousands upon thousands of years.

Nature is not in a hurry it seems, and we have much to learn about the virtues of taking life more slowly.

All in all, this was a hopeful walk, the kind of hike Thoreau or Emerson would approve. In his treatise on nature, Emerson noted that a walk in the woods helps us become young again, where the “air is a cordial” and we find ourselves wrapped in an “uncontained and immortal beauty.” [1]  On this day, the trail, labeled by the park service as strenuous and challenging because it is crisscrossed by fingerlike tree roots, muddy and slick in places, was, for us, a delight, a hushed forest canvas caressed by the river, filled with beauty, harmony, grace, and peace.

Day’s end brought a leisurely campfire enjoyed in good company with mugfuls of hot tea. As always, there isn’t much to say as the fire pulls us in and rearranges our thoughts.

I thought about the wood, not unlike my own life, so many long, patient years in the making.

The wood roars to life in a last, bursting fling, sparks rising up in joyous mutiny as if they could escape a foregone conclusion: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

We repeated these words recently as we committed my husband’s mom to her earthly grave. I can only hope that, at the end of my days, I might rise up and light the night in one last delighted burst of joy, willowy arms reaching for heaven just like flames that lick away the darkness-a supplication of praise and thanksgiving for my life and my rebirth.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature.1836.

Affirmation, Blessings, canoeing, Creation, Creator, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hope, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Serving Others, Uncategorized, wisdom

Count On It

I am known in my family for my quirky penchant for counting things-the number of kayak strokes I take to my husband’s single dip of a canoe paddle (about 8), the mileage on a bike ride, the number of geese flying in V formation, how many feet of fishing line I let out when trolling, the number of steps in any flight of stairs, and a daily report of the number of cargo and cruise ships that pass by on the big lake.

During June at the bluff, the fervent counting begins. See the doe with two fawns, and raise your eyebrows in disbelief when the neighbor shows you a picture of the bobcat with five kits under her deck.  The robins are on their second brood already, and the dying ash trees that have summoned the voracious pileated woodpeckers means there are bugs galore just for the hammering. Today I saw a monarch butterfly, the first of the summer’s four generations that it will take to produce heirs with the will and stamina to fly to Mexico in September (one day two Septembers ago, I counted 75 monarchs/hour heading south along the bluff line). Each night, two baby screech owls silently glide in at dusk to hunt the plentiful moles and voles at the forest’s edge. And who could even begin to count the mayflies at hatch time?

I think I count things because it helps me be present and aware of my surroundings. Counting gives the world I see and hear a sense of order and rhythm, helping me apprehend patterns and hear Nature’s music.  Mostly I just love all things numbers.  Of course, much of the counting we do in life could be considered just so much idle wool-gathering; we tally our financial assets, count down the number of days until Christmas, check the number of likes on a social media post, and keep a running score in our head of who’s let us down.

But what should we be counting?  What (and who) can we count on? When Job tried to argue his feeble case, God let go with a thundering,

Who are you to lecture me? Where were you when I filled the storehouses with snow and hail? Do you even know how I measured out the dimensions of the universe? Can you count the lightning bolts?”

In other words, there are lots of things only God can count, like all the stars in all the universes, every fish in the sea, and the grains of sand on the coast. This is the same God who tenderly tells us that He knows the number of hairs on our head, and the very sum of the days of our life.

We can count on God to be our strength, hope, and peace when we feel like our own strength is gone. And, of course, when we live a life that has died to self, we can count on each other.

I love to watch the world go by while I keep count, and I am beginning to appreciate how to count it all joy when God gives me work to do, and the strength to do it. That’s what it really means to count your blessings.

~J.A.P. Walton

Photo Credit: ML Walton, Lake Charlevoix, June 2018.

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