When Jean and I moved from London to Central Oregon in October of 1999, we lived for twenty months in a small cabin in the woods south of Bend on the Fall River. It’s in a fairly remote area of forest west of La Pine State Park, mostly lodge pole and jack pine with some majestic old growth Ponderosas standing above the other trees. That little cabin is about thirty-two miles and one universe away from where we live now in Bend!
It had been over a year since we had been down there and because this April Friday was one of the warmest days so far this season, Jean and Buddy and I drove down there to look around and walk in the woods. We thought most of the snow would be gone and we might be able to get in without much trouble. It’s a little over two miles of pretty bad forest road after turning off the paved highway. We only saw one other vehicle in the few hours and several miles we drove and walked back there in the woods.
We parked the Explorer in a clearing beside the dirt road. There were no tire tracks but ours since the winter snows had melted. Our footprints in the dirt were the only human prints, the only ones besides deer, coyote, and bobcat. Buddy eagerly sniffed the air for deer scent and the ground for chipmunks and squirrels. There were still a few patches of snow on the shaded north side of trees and rocks. I’d forgotten how alive the forest sounds and feels with the wind blowing through the tops of the Ponderosa pines. I kept wanting to look up and over my shoulder to see who was just behind us. The sense of “The Presence” is so strong in the woods!
As we walked and talked Jean began to remind us of how God had provided in such surprising and appropriate ways when we moved from inner-city London to this remote place in the Central Oregon woods. He provided a place to live, a vehicle to drive, and an increase in financial support that was exactly enough to meet our needs.
God had given us a season of solitude there in the woods to restore our weary souls and enough ministry opportunities and interaction with people that we didn’t lose complete contact with the real world.
The cabin in the woods had been available to us for as long as we needed it. The owner of the house provided a man with a snow plow to keep the more than two miles of forest road open through the winter so we could get in and out. When the road got so bad for a month that our four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer couldn’t negotiate it, God provided the loan of a larger, taller truck that handled the mud and snow without any problem.
As we walked along the forest paths that April day, we thanked God for his provision during that wonderful season of solitude. We spoke blessing on the friends God used to provide for us during the time we lived on the Fall River. We talked about other seasons and experiences of God’s faithfulness to us. Our faith grew stronger. My eyes grew brighter. As we walked and talked, and the wind soughed in the pine trees along the old logging road, the sense of “Presence” remained strong.
Throughout that season of change and transition, our faith was stretching and strengthening, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. God was working deeply (and a little painfully!) in us to clear away accumulated layers of grime and rust from our souls. That day walking in the woods beside the Fall River, we began looking forward with fresh eyes and hopeful hearts to the surprising and appropriate ways God would direct us into a new season and provide once again in surprising and appropriate ways! It’s who God is. It’s what God does!
Looking back to that moment from the vantage point of years and experiences and miles and ministry, I can still remember that strong sense of “The Presence” I felt that day as the wind blew through the tops of the pines. I kept wanting to look up or look behind me to see who’s there!
That spot on that old logging road beside the Fall River is more difficult to reach now. Elimination of roads by the Forest Service, selective logging, and gates across the remaining road mean it takes more effort to go there. But we still drive out there and park in the woods and walk out to the spot. It was a sacred moment of sensing God’s faithful presence and the spot seems sacred as well.
Sometimes I hesitate to tell about my experiences of “The Presence.” I hesitate because those times are very personal. I hesitate because of the temptation to try and replicate spiritual experiences through copying others’ practices. I hesitate because sometimes people can feel “left out” if they don’t have the same experiences. But I’m going to tell you a couple of things that just may be helpful, and if they aren’t, please feel free to disregard them.
I still have places I go and practices I do to connect with God’s felt presence. It’s not a mechanism or a ritual, but it’s a choice to go to the place and a choice to quiet myself and open the eyes and ears of my soul in case God wants to drop by and say “I love you”!
I’m convinced that study and knowledge and doctrinal interpretation are helpful and necessary to provide a framework to hang our beliefs on, a foundation to build our faith on, and a structure to contain our experiences. But those structural things can become dead and dry and empty if we don’t have experiences of the things we believe, if we don’t have the experience of the “Presence”.
For me, there are two significant components of preparing myself and my heart for God encounters. First is creating a place, a space, in my mind, my schedule, my practices. This is the inner landscape of my life. Second is finding places and practices to make myself available to whatever God does or does not want to do. This is the outer landscape.
First, the inner landscape. I make time in my day. For many years that involved rising very early. Now, with a more flexible schedule, it means setting a time and making the effort to be available. It means shutting out other stuff. I know that listening to music can sooth your soul, and listening to podcasts can help you learn new things. That has its place. But it’s most often noisier than God’s quiet whisper and gentle nudge. (1 Kings 19:7-18) I find it helpful to carry on a conversation with God much of my day. Either in my thoughts if others are around or aloud if it’s just me and Jake the Dog in the desert. Lots of stream of consciousness words and thoughts to God. Lots of questions to God about all sorts of things (Don’t forget to stop talking and listen when you’re asking questions). Listen for God to answer in what you see, in conversations with others, in words from songs, in scriptures, and even in dialog from movies!
Second, the outer landscape. Jean and I are so fortunate to live where we live in Central Oregon! Forested mountains to the west and spacious juniper and sagebrush desert to the east. Winter limits our access to the mountains west, but the desert east is accessible pretty much year round. If you don’t live in Central Oregon, it doesn’t mean you’re out of luck! We’ve always been able to find somewhere! Neighborhood walks, parks, trails, backyards. In London there were churches we could go into and sit in silence, bathed in the glow of light through the stained glass windows. Make the effort, be creative, find a place.
Friends, I’m not talking about “on demand” encounters with God. I’m talking about putting yourself in a frame of mind and a place of access. God is a communicating God and God wants to communicate with his beloved children! That’s you and me!
You and I make ourselves available, with a hungry heart and an open mind and God will show up in his time and his manner. Keep your eyes open. Keep your ears open. Be hungry and thirsty for “The Presence”!
As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.