As I headed to Brandywine Falls for my time away with the Lord (see “Day 59 – His Voice”), I made an unscheduled “pit-stop” of sorts. I drove to a bend in the Cuyahoga River that has particular significance to me in my walk with the Lord, born of an earlier pit-stop I made there on Monday, August 29, 2011. That first pit-stop occurred shortly after I finished teaching a weekend retreat last summer (“At Rest in the Heart of God”) for two of my daughters and six of their friends.
The morning of August 29 I was on my way to work in downtown Cleveland and decided to head through the Cuyahoga Valley. As I meandered my way down into the valley, a particular bend in the Cuyahoga River came to my mind and I felt as if, perhaps, the Lord might want me to stop there, to enjoy a moment with Him. And as the river came into view I noticed a light mist hanging just above the water line, upstream of the bend, and wondered whether the Lord had something to say to me through that mist, that image.
I felt rather strongly as if I should head over that way — and slowed down almost to a stop at the entrance to the parking area near that bend – before deciding to just skip it and head on into work. But as soon as I made that decision I sensed a deep sadness in the Lord, as if He was impressing upon me, with the utmost sincerity of heart, that He really had wanted me to stop there to be with Him. I kept driving, but as each tenth of a mile clicked by my sense of the Lord’s sorrow continued to build until, about ½ mile away, I just couldn’t stand that feeling anymore. So I turned around and headed back to the bend. When I got there I pulled into the empty parking lot and parked facing the river, which sits about twenty or thirty feet lower than the parking area.
I got out of the car and walked over to a sizeable flat rock that overlooks the river, and from there scanned the scene. I remember the graceful, lilting limbs of a slender white birch reaching toward a vibrant blue sky, just off to my right. To my left, upstream, I once again saw the mist hanging just above the water, rising here and there about six inches, maybe a foot or so. Nothing unusual there, but I asked the Lord, as I often do, “what do You want to say to me in this Lord? What do You have for me here?”
Silence. Nothing. I closed my eyes and tried to give myself over more purposefully to hearing from the Lord. Nothing. I listened to the sounds of the river, the breeze, the quiet movement of birch, limb and leaf. Nothing. After a time I opened my eyes again, and decided there would be nothing for me in the mist, so to speak, this day. (Perhaps a “mark this” moment?).
The river below me was moving slowly, and my mind turned to still waters, green pastures, restoration of soul. I closed my eyes again and breathed deep, the smells of late summer filling my senses. My mind turned to the girls on the retreat, and I prayed through Psalm 23 for them, fervently, and then prayed that the truths of the retreat would go deep for each one, according to their hearts’ truest needs as known only by the Lord. As I prayed I sensed the Lord’s delight with the retreat, that the weekend was good and right, that He was pleased. And, yes, I sensed His good pleasure even with me (Ps. 18:19), His son. Oh, how welcomed were those moments by the river! How needed(!!) were those moments. Moments of peace and assurance.
Moments of soul restoration.
After a while I opened my eyes, intending to leave, and there, before me, directly in front of me, reaching from the river 20 or 30 feet below and up another 30 feet or more beyond toward the sky, and stretching about 20 feet or so wide, was a well-defined, vertical column of mist. Not moving with the river, but stationary in front of my eyes. I was dumbfounded. “Can this be?” I wondered. “Is this You, Lord?” I stared in disbelief. The pillar of mist stayed for about 15 seconds, and then, just like that, it was gone. I looked upstream and down for anything else like it. Nothing. I waited another five minutes for anything like it, any where on the stream within my sight. Nothing.
I continued to stand in disbelief. Not disbelief that I had seen what I had seen, but disbelief that it really was God speaking to me in this fashion. I hesitated to believe. Surely this was God, I thought, and yet surely such a feat must be somehow explainable wholly apart from Him, right? Any meteorologist worth his salt could explain away the pillar of mist with a wave of the hand and perhaps a chart of two, couldn’t he?
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
And even so, what if a meteorologist could explain a single, solitary 15-second pillar of mist standing stationary over a moving river? What about the initial sense, as I had meandered my way down to the valley, that the Lord wanted me to go to that very spot on the river, and then the impression that perhaps He had something to say via the mist? What about the undeniable tug upon my heart as I had approached and then passed by the bend? And the deepening sense of the Lord’s sorrow that relentlessly had pulled me back to that very spot — at just the right time, at just the right place, to witness this 15-second event? These things cannot be denied, not by me, for I lived through them, personally experienced them.
No, the absurdity for me would be to deny, through disbelief, that the God of all creation could orchestrate all of this for a son whom He loves. And to deny, through disbelief, that He would orchestrate all of this for His son, to deny that He would condescend to speak to me, to my heart, in an especial way, through the very creation that He rules. For to know Him is to know not only that He could, but that He would. And to be there that morning is to know that He did.
No, as I stood on that rock on August 29 my Father showed me the reason His heart grieved so deeply when I chose to press down on that gas pedal and go on my way — when I chose to press down on His whisper and accelerate into the workweek, saying “no” to His invitation to be with Him, just Him, in solitude and silence, if even for a few minutes. For He was inviting me to a remote place, free of distractions, at a particular moment in our walk together, to show me His presence in my life, to bare His heart, in yet another intimate way. To speak of His approval and pleasure and delight and then weave those sentiments into the fabric of my heart through the romance of His creation. An experience, a love note, meant only for me, His beloved, in those solitary, unhurried, still and quiet moments. A gift, an embrace, from my Abba, my Savior, my Holy Spirit, that He longed to give me –
and that I would have missed entirely . . .
not even knowing what I had missed –
had I stayed my course to arrive in downtown Cleveland 20 or 30 minutes earlier. Living – rushing – through the morning, the day, in my timing, in my way, as I am so often wont to do.
* * * * * * *
The recent morning I headed out to Brandywine Falls for purposeful time away with the Lord, for His counsel with respect to our treatment options, I ran to the basement to grab some ice for my coolers. I have been journaling with the Lord for 10 years or so, and a couple of those journals were lying on a table by the downstairs refrigerator. My journals contain not only prayers to the Lord, but notes from Bible meetings I regularly have with brothers in Christ; extensive notes from my meditations upon and study of Scripture; excerpts from books, devotionals, reference tools, and even long-ago sermons of our forefathers; and notes from sermons at my church and elsewhere.
As I closed the freezer door I sensed that I should grab those two old journals and bring them along on the retreat. (I should say, I sensed again that I should grab those, because I had felt a niggling of sorts for a few days that I should bring them.) I picked up the old journals and stuffed them into my computer bag.
As I drove toward the falls I called my brother, who wanted to pray with me before my time away. I told him about John 10:40 serving as the basis for this trip (as described at “Day 59”), and that I would be heading somewhere special. He asked if it was the place with the mist, and I said “No . . . but . . . change of plans . . . I’m going to stop there first, on my way to [the falls].”
When I arrived at the parking area near the bend in the Cuyahoga River, I was disappointed to see the lot was pretty much full – disappointed, that is, until I noticed that the parking space directly in front of “my” flat rock was vacant. I pulled in and set up an old camping chair in the grass by the rock, memories of August 29 flowing and wafting all around me.
As I sank into the chair I held my face up toward the blue, noonday sky and let the sun warm my face for a minute or two before I looked out across the river, to the thick line of trees across the way. I had a strong sense of the Lord’s presence, His pleasure. That this was good and it was right. And for a brief moment my heart was overtaken — overwhelmed — by His presence. . . . My Abba Father welcoming me into His arms, His embrace, as I settled into our time together.
One of the first verses the Lord planted on my heart (along with John 10:40) upon hearing the cancer diagnosis was Ps 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” And as I sat before the river that verse again came immediately to mind. There is a great deal packed into those words, which have been translated from the original Hebrew text. In part, “be still” means, variously, relax, let go, cease from your own efforts, become helpless, sink into. The word “know” means to ascertain by seeing; it has an experiential component. In other words, ‘be still, and see, experience, that I am God.’
When that verse came to my mind I accepted it as a prompting from the Lord, and tried to clear my mind and just let go of everything. To be “still”, to empty myself and sink into the Lord. But as my time by the river continued unfolding I sensed the Lord telling me “no”. That that was not how I was to “be still and sink in” in those moments. No, instead, I was to leaf through those two old journals that I had thrown into my computer bag and camp there, because, unbeknownst to me,
those two journals contained all I needed for the retreat.
All the “work” had already been done. All the sermon messages I needed were there. All the Bible study and meditation I would need had been recorded in those pages. All the excerpts and quotes that I would need — from books and blogs and other extra-Biblical materials — were taped and stapled onto those pages. All the “heavy lifting” had already been done. All I needed to do was look over those journals with my “new” eyes – the eyes I now had in light of the cancer diagnosis, and in light of the focused questions that were on my mind. Yes, all that was left for me to do was simply relax, with Him, and “ascertain by seeing” that He is God. Ps. 46:10. For He had been preparing me for this retreat even when those journals were penned, though I did not know it.
And so that’s how our retreat together unfolded. Whether relaxing in the shade by a softly-flowing river, or lying in the quiet fragrance of an out-of-the-way meadow, or sitting aside a woodburning stove, my rocking chair creaking against the pine planks of a two-room cabin, I restfully, peacefully, settled in and spent time with my Abba and read through those journals, cover-to-cover, with my new eyes, taking notes as further guided and counseled by the heart and voice of the Holy Spirit. And all the Biblical principles I needed – all the Biblical principles I needed – were right there, laid out before me from an earlier season of my life by my Abba, my Father, my King, my God of all, who is like no other (Is 46:9).
* * * * * * *
Remember how that particular bend in the Cuyahoga River is special to me because of that August 29 morning of intimate prayer with the Lord, the sense of His delight, the appearance of the pillar of mist? Well, in the midst of my unscheduled, impromptu visit to that bend in the river on my way to the Brandywine Falls retreat, the Lord underscored the miracle that happened on the morning of August 29. For, sometime in the past, I had transcribed Psalm 99 onto pages 8 and 9 of the first “everything-you-need-is-right-here” journal, and at the very top of page 9, front and center, I had written, in turn, Ps 99:7:
“He [God] spoke to them in a cloudy pillar. . . .”
And the Hebrew word for “cloud”? . . . It also means “heavy mist”(!).
Yes, as I sat by the bend my God and my King was once again telling me, reminding me, underscoring for me that, indeed, “He spoke to [me] in a pillar of heavy mist” on August 29. I can almost imagine Him winking as I read those words in the journal, because His reminder came even as I began leafing through those journals with an ever-increasing amazement and wonder at the incomprehensible majesty of who He is. For every bit as much as He orchestrated the mist, that entire morning of August 29, to further capture and captivate me with His majesty and His heart, I realized, as I read over those old journals, that He had orchestrated the ebb and flow of my studies with Him, my conversations with Him, my very life with Him (Ps. 139:16), to confirm in a whole new way His majesty and sovereignty over all things. To show me, again, that He alone is God, that He alone rules and reigns. And to personally and powerfully remind me, in the midst of my cancer, that He, God Almighty, who alone rules and reigns, has an epic concern for my well-being.
* * * * * * *
Experiences like these catch me off-guard, because I just don’t expect God to do things like this. And this reaction helps me realize that I don’t really “get” that He is God (Is. 45:3-5), and I don’t really “get” how much He truly does love me (Eph 3:18-19). And there is a deep and beautiful wonder, a penetrating excitement to that — to the ever-expanding realization that I — we — have the utter privilege of drawing continually nearer to the God of all, who is forever beyond our ability to wholly comprehend. And that for all of eternity we will be coming to know and appreciate more and more of His infinite facets, with greater and greater depth and clarity, for knowledge of Him, this Treasure, is inexhaustible. Yes, these experiences point me ever more dearly to Him, make me pant more and more for Him. And serve to remind me that the more I relax, the more I cease from my own self-efforts, take my foot off of my own accelerator and sink into Him, the more I will see Him, experience His heart, in endlessly new and expanding ways . . . unto falling ever more deeply in love, with Him. Ps. 46:10.