In what often feels like another life, I used to take my boys camping. Now it should be noted that my very loose definition of camping involved a 35- by 8-foot trailer with a screened-in porch, electricity, running water and WiFi. But it was the woods – okay so it is was in a campground with dirt roads, lots of trees and real woods around the borders – but there were chipmunks, bugs, and frogs aplenty. And dirt – there was lots of dirt – everywhere. In those days, I got very good at building fires and making s’mores and I taught my two little boys how to use the hose to make a giant mud puddle for their trucks. That trailer was a safe haven for me at a time when home was not a safe place to be. I had a freedom there to just be me. Many nights, I would tuck my boys into the queen-sized bunk and set them up with bedtime snacks and Scooby-Doo cartoons on my laptop. I would go sit outside and watch the fire burn down to embers. In those days, most of the time it felt like God and I were on very shaky ground. But at night, sitting in the quiet darkness, watching the fire dance in the embers, it was different. Gradually, I would realize that there was a gentle and familiar presence there that didn’t require fancy words or proper rubrics. Had you sat down beside me then and asked me if I was praying, I would have said no. I was at a point where I was all out of prayers and I wasn’t so sure God had been listening to them anyway. But I would sit and watch the fire play in the embers and feel the presence that was all around me, never realizing that just sitting by the fire was a prayer in its own right.
To say that life has changed drastically since then would be something of an understatement. Those little boys are almost grown now. Mud puddles and toy cars have been replaced by a driver’s ed classes and an old Bonneville parked in my driveway, waiting to be driven. Scooby-Doo has given way to Lord of the Rings and The Fast and the Furious. The trailer is long gone and it’s been over a decade since the last time I got down on my knees and built a fire, coaxing flames to burn ever higher. And what about God and I? I know the ground I’m standing on is solid and I know God is standing right there with me and that’s a very good place to be – most of the time. I still have my moments when things feel a little wobbly and I suppose I always will. I’ve come to accept that it’s all part of this whole learning how to trust thing.
When I went to Gettysburg, I had some time alone in a quiet prayer space and when I first entered that space, I walked right into the gentle and familiar presence that I had known so well around the campfire. Except this time, instead of gradually becoming aware of God all around me, God was already there, fully present and waiting for me. It was so startling, I instinctively turned on my heel and walked right back out of the room and sat down in a chair in the hall. The brief inner monologue went something like this: That’s God in there! Well, duh, what did you expect?! It took a minute or two before shock gave way to wonder and I was drawn into that space where God was waiting for me to come and sit and just be for awhile. I was invited to come in and sit down and know the presence that surrounded me. I didn’t need words, which was a good thing because words completely failed me.
A little later that day, about three hours into the drive home, I suddenly realized that for the first time since I was child, I was seriously making long-term plans for my life. I had spent so many years in survival mode that I had forgotten what it was to have dreams and plans for a future. I was so stunned by that realization that I started to cry and I ended up having to stop for awhile until the tears stopped. I found myself sitting in a noisy crowded McDonald’s, looking out at the blue sky stretched over the mountains of Pennsylvania and being aware of the presence of God, even there amidst the mundane and noisy chaos of a fast food joint on the side of the highway.
That was how I spent Palm Sunday. Holy Week and Easter have now come and gone. My younger boy was confirmed last Friday night. My classes have ended for the semester. Finals week is upon me. My older boy’s graduation is coming up quickly. Summer classes will be starting soon. Life, in all of its glorious and messy chaos, goes on. And yet, in all of this, that gentle and familiar presence is still there, in the space between breaths, if I but stop to notice. I came home from Gettysburg very much changed and yet very much the same. I am far more aware not only of God’s presence but also that I am completely at home with who I am in God’s presence.
Friday evening, after coming home from a visit with Deacon Ron, I went out for a burger with my older son. On the ride home, we opened the car windows, enjoying the first warm spring evening we’ve had thus far. Someone in the area had a backyard fire pit going. The smell of a campfire brought all those memories of my nights at the trailer roaring back. And it occurred to me that all those times I had spent silently watching the embers, I had been seeing a reflection of my soul. The fire had been burning deep inside all along, waiting for the breath that would rekindle the embers to flame at precisely the right moment. It would happen in God’s time and not mine, and it would happen regardless of my ability, or lack thereof, to express it in words.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:21-22)