I am a Presbyterian pastor. I didn’t grow up Presbyterian. I didn’t grow up thinking I would be a pastor of a church. I live in the confluence of unforeseen streams. After nearly five years, it can still be rather dizzying.
There are a few peculiarities to being Presbyterian. There are a dizzying number of abbreviations and initials and acronyms. It took me years to be able to follow a Presbyterian conversation without having to ask, “What does that mean?” or just staring blankly. There are committees and rules and procedures and tradition tied up with all of that, so things can take a long time to get done. We can be a bit (ha!) in our own heads at times.
But there are lovely virtues to being Presbyterian, as well. I won’t get in to all of that right now because I don’t want to affirm a smug stereotype. But one of the best things about being Presbyterian (and I imagine it’s true of being Methodist or Lutheran or Anglican or whatever) is the connection. Someone is not only connected to me by name, but by real relationship and by spheres of accountability.
When I was both very new as a pastor and very new as a Presbyterian, some kind people in my presbytery (which is just a regional collection of Presbyterian churches) realized that I didn’t know what i was doing. They found me a coach. What that means is that I was given someone to Skype with every month to ask, “What the heck am I doing and how do I do it better?” This very enthusiastic, loving, kind man encouraged me for two years. He’d check on my church and my leadership. But only after he checked on me and my family. I wasn’t always excited to have these meetings (I’m an introvert and meetings mean talking to relative strangers so….), but I was always refreshed afterwards.
One of the things that my coach, Tom, impressed upon me is that I’m responsible first for my interior life. We talked about how I get recharged, not just recreationally, but spiritually. For me, I’ve found that taking walks outside are an enormous benefit to my spiritual life. I need to detach from synthetic, even human stimulation and be immersed in the natural world. I don’t have to do daily treks into the deep wilderness or anything. I just need to be outside, listening to birds and wind and streams. And I need it a couple times a week, probably.
Lately, I have gotten away from doing those walks. It happens like any kind of slip in habit happens. “I’m fine. I’ll be just fine.” And it’s probably true. Right then. But when you keep making “I’m fine” decisions, things usually slide into not being very fine.
Truth be told, the inside of me has been rather grey and dull of late. Other voices that I need to hear are drowned out by the echo of my own voice constantly pinging around inside my skull. When that happens, my heart grows cold. To be perfectly frank, I miss God.
I have said this many times, probably on this blog, certainly from the pulpit. I am, by nature, a skeptic. A doubter. I have a hard time believing… anything. I know that, stereotypically, this is a strange description for a pastor. But… there you have it.
When I grow cold inside, my doubts grow large and it becomes exhausting staving them off. It’s not that I’m really afraid of their substance. In fact, when I feel most doubtful, I turn and face my doubts and really look them over, discerning whether I actually believe them. And I don’t. I genuinely find that my doubts are more bark than bite. But if you hear enough barking, you start to wonder if that poodle is a pit bull. It’s not. It’s easy to believe otherwise, though.
Last week, I was buzzing inside. Not in a positive, excited way. I was just so frazzled from having things to do and study and write and think about. I couldn’t focus. I had a hard time finishing an article that I should have been able to handle without problems. I knew that what I needed was a walk in the woods. I breathed through my article. I walked out of my office. I drove to the woods.
I went to a beautiful college that I continue to love. I teach there. I have students in my church from there. I really enjoy the place. There is a second campus down the road that is largely undeveloped and has lots of woods. It’s quiet there, and very close to my office. If I wasn’t so lazy, I could walk there. I needed to get to the woods as quickly as possible, though, to take advantage of the momentary break in the clouds over my head. I needed to not cop out.
I parked on campus and went to find the nearest trail and I just started walking. I left my phone and even my books (gasp!). I just wanted to walk in the woods and pay attention. That’s what I felt like I needed more than anything: to pay attention. So I walked and I watched.
I was surprised by how many trails were on campus. I honestly didn’t know how much I hadn’t explored. I was delighted to find broad, well-kept trails with very gentle inclines and declines. The trails spider-web along broader avenues and splinters off into deeper forest. The woods were cool and green and, as is typical for these parts, pretty soggy.
What I was struck by, after 20 or 30 minutes of my walk, was simply how good the woods are. This is, to me, the best thing about going to be in the woods. The message received is simple and distilled into every nuanced shade of green, every glimmer of light through a dew drop, every noble row of trees: Someone very good is behind all of this.
Of course, I understand that it’s very possible to look at nature and to say, “My, isn’t nature pretty. Evolution is cool.” And it is cool. But there’s a reason why billions of people for ages and ages have walked off into nature and worshipped what they’ve seen, or something tethered very tightly to it. I think the reason is that most people not enslaved to the very recent human phenomenon of materialism feel in the woods a beckoning to something greater than what is there in front of them.
Now, as a Christian, I don’t think every response to the that call is a good or valid response. I do, however, think that the longing, the hunger, the whispering that people hear in the woods is coming from Somewhere. We Christians believe that God is a God who does not allow people to blindly stumble in the dark, hoping that they grope their way towards him without any aid. We think he reveals himself. He’s a God of revelation. And nature, we’ve always said, is a means of revelation. It’s not as clear, not as total as the Incarnate Word but it is a legitimate source of revelation that finds its full power in light of the Word. It’s not saying everything but Nature is saying something about God.
That’s what I kept thinking as I meandered along unfamiliar paths. “Nature is saying something.” It was that simple, repeated message: God is good. Unalloyedly, unreservedly, undeniably good.
The racket of the other voices faded, faded, faded away. I was left with the sounds of my footsteps, my breathing, and the gentle cacophony of the woods singing its song: wind and water and winged-choir repeating the same refrain: He is good, he is good, he is good.
Sometimes that simple affirmation outside is all I need. Sometimes I really just need the simplicity of everything to be reminded of the truth I’m constantly trying to hang on to. I cannot be a pastor without it. I cannot be the person I was intended to be without moments like those. It is good and holy to listen to what God reveals about himself.
In the woods, I am glad his voice whispers so loudly. It’s the perfect pitch and volume for me to hear the truth. His voice cuts through my own and quiets interior storms. It’s not that God lives in the woods and he was hiding from me. It’s that I lose the melody as I hide in the busy-ness of the important and the mundane. I needed to hear the song again. I needed to sing along with the song of the woods:
He is good, he is good, he is good.
I took a deep breath and blew it back out. My interior world was lit up. I could leave now that I’d heard the song again, reminded of its simple power. I could leave and go about business.
But I’ll always come back.