I stand alone in the quietness of the pine grove. The hills around this valley setting bring a welcome halt to the noisiness of life from the ridges above. Any sound that manages to find its way down here is muffled by the pine needles above and the bubbling of the small creek beside me. The light of the new day gradually brightens. I feel the stillness.
During the night, snow visited then apparently left quickly. Each flake of the thin blanket must have floated gently downward, for many lay cradled in the waiting boughs of the pines while others decorate the still green ferns low to the ground. Next to me, the tall trunk of a dead pine, riddled with woodpecker holes and limbs long gone, stands bent over, stubbornly holding onto its spot in the grove. Its sagging bark, hanging like loose skin, adds to its imitation of an old man.
The stillness of the valley is broken momentarily by the cry of a pileated woodpecker. Its surreal cry is a mocking one, knowing the burrowed larvae is no match for its searching bill. The sound further awakens me to why I have come here.
I sigh and inhale deeply again the crisp, pine-scented air. It is having its restorative effect. Though the burdens do not leave, they do lighten in God's woods. A memory stirs, bringing back to mind the thoughts of Spurgeon in Lectures to My Students. He first warns about the burden of ministry.
To sit long in one posture poring over a book or driving a quill is in itself a taxing of nature, but add to this a badly ventilated chamber, a body which has long been without muscular exercise, and a heart burdened with many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair especially in the dim months of fog...Let a man be naturally as blithe as a bird, he will hardly be able to bear up year after year against such a suicidal process; he will make his study a prison and his books the warders of a gaol (jail), while nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy.
He then reminds us of how to respond to the beckoning.
He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy. A day's breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive. A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind's face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.
In coming here, I am practicing this wisdom that, even having lectured it to my own students, I fail too often to do. Too much time surrounded by studies, books, projects, and ministry can dull and burden rather than enliven and inspire. Fresh air is not fresh grace, but the former helps one in seeking the latter. Often they mysteriously partner. Creation and redemption singing together.
Many times we need to read fresh passages of His Word for new thoughts and direction. But other times we need to return to familiar, sacred ground where God has spoken to us clearly, definitively, profoundly. Like Jacob, we have to go back to those places the Lord has made our own Bethel. I needed to come back here. It has been too long since that day, a few years ago, that the Spirit of God visited me here as I prayed.
For here He impressed on my heart six words that set a new course for my life and ministry. I was meditating on the call to be living sacrifices in Romans 12. Further in the chapter, Paul describes how we are to use our gifts in the body to live as those sacrifices. As I was wrestling and resisting the call to my current position, the six words “the one who leads, with zeal” (Rom. 12:8) came and would not leave me. The Lord used those words first to put the question before me. Could I lead enthusiastically and whole-heartedly? Then, by His grace, a deeper sense of their meaning came. I was reminded that He served that way for the church and for me. For of Christ it was said "Zeal for Your house will consume Me" (John 2:17). How could I resist Him who poured out His very life for His people? I left the grove that day knowing what I had to do, what I would be privileged to do.
This morning I take in another deep breath, leave the grove, and then slowly trudge up the hill toward the ridge and its responsibilities of the day. And, by God's grace and fresh air, I have a renewed eagerness for it, for I do not walk alone.