The Shenandoah and a Pattern of Grace

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Next to my desk, I have a shelf of books intended for the nourishment of my soul. On this shelf sits (among others) the Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Working the Angles, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry and Hiking Shenandoah National Park: A Falcon Guide. For me, poetry and prayer and long walks in the woods are all three ways of doing a very similar thing. My jaunts in the Blue Ridge mountains, immersed among pignut hickory and shagbark oaks, asters and goldenrods, teach me the same language Scripture leads me toward: gratitude, wonder and restfulness. The Orthodox speak of the book of Scripture accompanied by the book of nature. This makes sense to me.

Last week, I went for a long walk in the Shenandoah. I started the trek feeling a heaviness, the weight of many questions. But true to form, over the 9 miles or so, the weight trickled off my shoulders, a lightness returned. I took a couple detours to examine flora, beautiful luxuries that exist carefree knowing only their need to bask in the shade and sunshine, their single task to emanate beauty. As I neared a creek I needed to ford, I looked up to find a black bear on the other side, perhaps 15 yards away. There are roughly 800 bears in the park, but I had yet to meet one in a standoff. She intended to cross my direction, and I intend to cross hers. I was happy to let her win, but she inched down the brook, munching leaves as she rambled. I inched up the brook, watching my escape route with vigilance. She really was a marvel.

Image quality low due to Photograph fear high
Image quality low due to photographer fear high

Arriving at my destination, I drank crisp, cold water from my Hydro Flask, crunched on my Pink Lady apple and my chili lime cashews. I stretched out my legs and read Barry Lopez reject (through one of his protagonists) “the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals.” Rather, Lopez affirmed, “we believe [humans] are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph.” I read these words, and I uttered an amen. I’m nearly certain one of the birches waved its green leaves in agreement.

I strolled back to my car, a heart filled yet again. Switching out my Keens for breezy sandals (a sweet moment, as any hiker will attest), I hopped into my truck and turned the engine. As I pulled onto the road and turned up the radio, NPR voices and the crackle of static greeted me. At that elevation and at that distance from any city, I was picking up two NPR broadcasts, interlacing. Two shows on two different topics, moving in and out like waves back and forth along the shore. I heard only snippets from each conversation, not enough even to really follow the topic. However, between the two separate shows talking to two separate panel of guests and apparently interacting with two very different themes, I heard – within only 90 seconds – the word anxiety spoken 5 times. I had only dipped my toe back into the “real world” before I was again battered by fear, by hand-wringing, by high-pitched rhetoric.

So I remembered that bear ambling over the creek, with me watching my backside. I remembered those lacy white wildflowers that forced me to stop and gawk. I remembered Lopez’s conviction of our deep longing for a pattern of grace. I pointed home, and I ignored the enticement to drink in all the fear.

The Grace that Surrounds Us

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When we lived in Colorado, our church met in a simple chapel tucked into the Front Range. Behind the pulpit and altar were large windows offering a panoramic view of tall, elegant pines, rugged ridges and a vast, blue sky. Each week, I would sit in my seat next to Miska and gaze west, toward the wild. Soon, I’d hear the call to worship, but those magnificent mountains had already made the call — and I had already answered with reverence and supplication. That splendid vista offered me an invitation to lay down my cares, to breathe deeply, to be present in this one place at this one hour, to trust that “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Our pastor was an extraordinary preacher, one of the best I’d heard; but I remember the light cutting across evergreens, the white clouds drifting across craggy peaks, every bit as much as I recall any text he expounded.

Last Sunday, as I stood behind our church’s pulpit, I looked out the windows and saw heavy white flakes falling from the sky. All of our trees, shed of their Fall glamor, stretched their bare branches toward the falling grace, like a child craning her neck and sticking out her tongue to catch the magic. We paused. We looked out the windows and watched the snow. We were quiet. It’s likely those few quiet moments were the best sermon we heard that day.

There’s a reason why, when Jesus began to preach, he would at times say things like, consider the lilies or watch the birds. There is a grace that surrounds us, a grace not of our own making. We can receive God’s kindness from the world around us, we can sense the truth and welcome it and walk right into it and allow all these mercies to hold us up. Sometimes we need words and explanation. Sometimes we just need big eyes and a wide-open heart.

As Kosser and Harrison put it:

The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.