adventure, Affirmation, Cancer, canoeing, Creation, Creator, Darkness, death, God, Henry David Thoreau, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Perseverence, Praise, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Religion, Silence, Transcendentalism, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling

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, Creation, Creator, Faithful Living, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Peace, Praise, Prayer, Silence, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

Hush Yourself

The Walton brothers leave in two days for their epic paddle on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and as they pack and plan, I find myself wondering how Mark and Hugh will adapt to a group setting, because when it’s just the two of them, the trips are filled with long, contented, contemplative silence.  A group of 16-20 paddlers is sure to be filled with whoops and the idle yakking that an exciting adventure can bring out in boisterous, bombastic ways.

Silence and wilderness are comfortable companions.  Big, wide, primitive, and timeless spaces like the Grand Canyon almost demand our reverent silence. So much so that the human tendency toward ceaseless chatter is nearly a sacrilege. I say ‘nearly’ because there are times when a gasp or sigh just won’t do, when, in our inability to find the words to describe God’s perfect creation, we can only utter an awe-filled, praise-pregnant, “Wow.”

A few weeks ago, at a gorgeous state campground in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we were surrounded by such surreal beauty that we could hardly speak at times. Yet, there were our neighbors, blasting their base-thrumming music right up to the stroke of the start of quiet hours. Beautiful wilderness, birdsong, chipmunk chirrups, the wide river lapping the shore, thunder in the distance- all crowded out by someone’s idea of a sound so beloved that it just had to be shared with everyone.

We seem to have arrived at a cultural norm in which it is another person’s right to fill “my” personal space with any sound, at any volume they choose, and if I don’t like it, I can leave. I get to listen to their cell phone conversations, their music, and their video movies on line at the store, in waiting rooms, restaurants, and, yes, even wilderness campgrounds. They may find it entertaining. I find it immensely thoughtless- storms, earthquakes and fires of our own destructive making.  But, God told Elijah that he was not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. God was a whisper so low that Elijah had to go outside and be silent to hear it. (1Kings 19)

Where in this whole, big world can we go to find real silence-that quietness of space and soul that God can speak into with his whispers?

And why do we shun God’s silent places with noise that distracts and numbs us while overflowing into our neighbors’ lives?  I find this mindless and endless self-absorption disheartening at best, a habit-forming and careless* practice of escapism that effectively shuts God’s voice right out of our lives, and, what’s more,  intrusively does so to the people around us.

Just look to the creation! The sun rises and sets without a sound. The caterpillar curls up and noiselessly becomes a whispering butterfly, the trees mutely leaf out in a stunning welcome to spring, and the snowflake somersaults in freefall in glorious silence.

I think this is why I gravitate toward rowing, sailing, paddling, fishing, and beach walks. No, these are never silent, but the music is God-given, rarely brassy, harsh, or discordant. The rills of water against the oars, the foaming gossip of a white-capped wave spilling onto the beach, the scree of the hungry hawk, the wind like a cellist’s bow against the cedar boughs, and the laugh of the blue jay- now this is a symphony of harmonious delight, free for the listening. The wilderness preserves silence on this busy planet, which is one big reason it is important for us to be committed to the preservation of the wilderness.

The wilderness can give you the concert of a lifetime if you’ll learn to hush yourself.

Happy listening!

Sign up to FOLLOW and you will join a growing list of regular readers who get an email push each time a blog post is published. As always, thanks for reading as I continue on this writing journey into the wilderness.

~J.A.P. Walton

  • by careless, I mean that a person could care less
Affirmation, Blessings, Creation, Creator, Darkness, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, Forest, God, Hate, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Praise, Prayer, Serving Others, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

The H’s of Learning & Unlearning

I taught thousands of college students over the years.  The biggest challenge was not helping students learn; it was first getting them to unlearn the things wrongly buried in their psyche: that rote memorization rarely creates understanding; cramming is foolish; being in class is a critical necessity; classmates are not just co-learners, they are also your teachers; the internet is not always the best source of information; talking to people face to face is an important skill… believe me, there’s more!  But, the point is that

we have all learned things that we need the guts and determination to root out and unlearn before our growth as a whole, helpful, and happy person can develop and mature.

When we take the time (that in itself is an important learning skill) to seek out the grandeur and solitude of the wilderness, we become students of nature- wild and human. There is so much we can learn if we are also willing to unlearn the things that make us small, harried, worried, unhappy, and vexed (oh how my grandmother the writer loved that word!)

I believe that all of learning is rooted in love.

And what does the wilderness teach us out of love about love?  That this world was created by design, with an Artist’s eye and a passionate Hand. What we find in the wilderness is that the world, as created, is infused with a holiness that transcends all the things humans can do to ruin it.  The wilderness teaches us humility, and to affirm the good that we see and can be to others. It teaches us to love the Creator.

If love is the root from which all learning blossoms, then it follows that the things we’ve learned wrongly do not shoot forth from love. When I take the time to seek out the solitude and teaching that creation offers, I ask myself what I need to unlearn first-those things the world pushes me to think, say, or do that are not things to be proud of. First, I must unlearn haste. It’s one thing to hurry to get dinner on the table for a hungry tribe; it’s another to live each day as if God did not create enough time. The wilderness teaches me that I must slow down.

The world has taught us to hate. We distrust anyone who is not like us. We spill our hatred over onto social media.

We grind our axes and our teeth. Hate is the rot at the core of our discontent, and it cannot possibly grow out of a heart steeped in love.

If you find yourself impatiently fuming at (fill in the blank), you are not acting out of love.

We have also learned to hoard from this consuming and consumptive world. We make and we take and we guard it closely with our tightly balled up fists- our time, our money, our very selves.

The wilderness teaches us all this: that our haste, and our hate, and our hoarding are ugly and shameful, and utterly pathetic in the face of the humility and holiness we encounter in creation.

I don’t know about you but I have much to unlearn in order to learn rightly.

~J.A.P. Walton

Affirmation, childhood, Faithful Living, Fathers, Fishing, God, Growing Up, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Peace, Praise, Uncategorized

Fishing for Praise

I have spent the better part of the last two years cleaning out my mom’s and mother-in-law’s homes. This time last year, I came across two fishing pole carriers, and inside one of them I was delighted to find the salmon pole my dad bought me 48 years ago.

My dad and I always had an iffy relationship. He disliked my temerity, and I distrusted the deep chasm between his public and private personas.

To others, he was affable, fun, and social. Inside our family space, he was irritable, short-fused, and prone to what he thought teasing, but was, in truth, mockery wedded to scorn. He knew I distrusted him, not because he was abusive, but because his personality was so discordant and unpredictable. I learned early how to walk on eggshells around him.

I have to give him credit though, because he tried mightily to find things we might enjoy doing together, and we managed hours of good times playing gin rummy and Yahtzee, and watching pro golf and football on TV while sharing a Budweiser (I was allowed my own small juice glass of beer starting quite young-one of the things about my dad that will always bring a smile). We also endlessly tossed baseballs. And we fished.

We discovered that fishing was the one activity that could unite us- in mind, in the hunt, in the murmured debates about which lure to try and at which depth to fish, and in the relative silence that accompanies the chase. Fishing sanded off the rough edges of my dad’s anxious personality. He became a contented, calm, loving man when he had a fishing pole in his hands, and since I was the only member of our family to really “take” to fishing, the two of us spent many dark, cold, early mornings on the Frankfort pier, and out in boats. He always brought 2 large thermos bottles, one with coffee, the other with Campbell’s tomato soup, because according to him, “Nothing beats a cup of hot soup in the cold autumn dawn.”

I will never forget his pride the day 12-year old me caught my first coho salmon- he so badly wanted to reel it in for me, but he let me fight that fish on my own terms. It weighed 17 pounds, it’s beautiful silvery sheen like a candy wrapper around a hidden treasure of delicious rosy flesh. He told everybody about it over the next week, and I was so pleased to hear him publicly praise me.

It is a truth that children desperately need to hear heartfelt, sincere praise from their parents without having to fish for it.

I think it is one way we learn to praise others.And an attitude of praise should be a permeating aroma of the life of a Christian.

So, as Father’s Day approaches, I have been thinking a lot about fishing. I got a new pole and re-rigged the old one. Bought a fishing license. Got a refresher course from cousin Dave. Went fishing. Caught a northern pike, a beautiful coho, and lots of rock bass. Lost the perfect lure to a “big one that got away.” Enjoyed a deeply gratifying fish dinner. Felt all of my own agitations related to mother-care melt away. And all that time, my long-dead dad was here, praising me. This will, indeed, be a Happy Father’s Day. I think I’ll go fishing.
~J.A.P. Walton

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