Instead of a sermon I’m going to tell you a story. Of course, my story involves bushwalking.
Most of you probably know that every year the St Johns Cartophiles Bushwalking Club does one multi-day trek, like the Overland Track in Tasmania. Last year’s trek was in the Budawangs Wilderness Area, inland from Ulladulla. I expected about five people to join me, but after a variety of reasons from work pressures to family events to Sue’s simple, “I don’t want to” there was only me.
I really wanted to do this walk. I’d last been in the area as a Rover Scout in 1975. I wanted to again climb the mountain called The Castle, just to prove I could after 38 years.
I was also not in a happy place last November and I wanted a break. Work was awful. Sue and I were spatting. I wasn’t spending enough time with my children and grandchildren or here at St Johns. Barrelling towards me was a 60th birthday screaming, “What have you achieved?”
I was depressed, and Sue had made me promise I’d see the doctor about it after the walk.
On top of all this, though, I felt really compelled to go in a way that I couldn’t quite describe. So instead of cancelling the walk I headed off by myself for a 50 km walk in the wilderness.
On the way I rang Ian Paterson to ask him to stand in for me to chair the church council meeting while I was away. He generously agreed and asked me what I was going to do all alone. I replied something like, “Maybe have a chat or two with God.”
I don’t know why I said that; it just came out.
I’ve often had conversations with God when I’ve been by myself in the bush – I discussed with Him selecting Chris as our minister while walking the Six Foot Track. But I hadn’t had that kind of chat for quite a while.
The walk was hard. I got into camp the first night bone tired, scratched and bleeding. Camp was in a valley surrounded by sheer cliffs with nothing but wind noise and bird cries for company. I was lonely.
I pitched my tent and started collecting firewood. I remembered my comment to Ian and thought that I should try a chat with God. So I said something profound like, “Well, um, g’day God, it’s been a while since we had a chat.”
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I was talking to myself. All the misery and depression and loneliness crashed down on me. I had tears streaming down my face. I dropped the bundle of wood I was carrying and cried out in my despair. “Oh please, at least say you love me.”
A sudden wave of overwhelming love and assurance filled me in way I will never be able to adequately describe. God was with me and in me and around me, drowning me in His love, reassuring me that He was there with me. I was overcome … I don’t know how long it lasted, but I vaguely remember saying thank you over and over again.
I finished collecting firewood chatting away to my friend like we’d never been apart. I poured out my heart to Him while I made my fire and ate dinner. I turned in feeling better than I had in weeks.
I woke the next day still very tired and sore. I may have been spiritually better but I was physically worn, and I considered just abandoning the walk and going home. During breakfast I noticed the echo from the cliffs around me and, being me, I tried singing; after all, there was no one else there for me to disturb. I don’t normally spend my spare time singing hymns, but for whatever reason I started with the 23rd Psalm. I was joined by a choir who all sounded like me! All excited I tried something more thumping to follow up and started belting out “To be a Pilgrim”.
When I reached ‘there’s no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avow’d intent, to be a pilgrim’ I paused. I realised that my hike was actually a sort of pilgrimage. My compulsion to do the walk was my need to get closer to God. I had to re-establish a relationship I had let sink under a pile of phone calls and meetings and other man-made priorities.
I was following the long example of the prophets and Christ Himself, going out into the wilderness to be closer to the Creator. I had to be surrounded by the things of God’s creation, not man’s. I couldn’t turn back.
So I went on. Whenever the going got particularly tough I found I was quietly singing to myself “the Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want …”
Over the next five days I rebuilt my waning faith. God was with me every step of the way and I was uplifted by Him. It was hard, but worth it.
Some of you have a faith strong enough that you can clearly hear God even through the man-made noise that surrounds us. I envy you. But if you, like me, don’t have a faith that strong I urge you to find the wilderness to hear Him more clearly.
I know we not all nutty enough to do a five day trek, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find the wilderness for yourself. Drive to the bush, take the train to a national park, or find some other way to remind yourself of what the wilderness is like. Go to a local park, watch a National Geographic documentary, stare at a Steve Parrish postcard … just do something to help you reach out to your God. Find a way to surround yourself with the things of God’s creation, not man’s. The effort is worth it. He is waiting there for you.
That’s not the end of my story, though. Fast forward three days.
I’m sitting in a cave half way up The Castle, making a cup of tea. A few minutes I’d abandoned my attempt to climb to the top. I’d found myself on a rope on a nearly vertical rock face, with a long drop below and a harder climb ahead, and I knew I didn’t have the bottle to make it. I was frightened I SMSed Sue to tell her I loved her before I began the descent. I reached the bottom of the cliff, leant against the rock and breathed a sigh of relief. In my ear … in my mind … in my heart … oh, I don’t know how I heard it, but God said, “How do you feel now?”
He was asking me about failing. I thought about it and answered, “Pretty good, actually.”
He replied, “Good. Now turn around.”
I turned, and laid out before me was a magnificent view across a deep valley to purple hills fading into the distance. The wild bush bloomed in flower, yellow sandstone bluffs shone in the sun, birds and cicadas flew in a dance. I said, “Wow! Thank you for showing me.”
I walked downhill to the cave and made that cup of tea. I thought about how I’d felt helped in the tough bits of the walk, but not on the climb. I realised that the walk was for both God and me, but the climb … well, that was just for me. I made it on my own or, I didn’t. And when I didn’t, God was still there with me saying, “How do you feel? Look at this much more important thing I have to show you.”
That’s true for so much of life. There’s stuff we have to do on our own: it goes along with having free will. God wasn’t going to carry me up that mountain any more than He’s going to give me more money or a bigger house or a faster car. God’s not going to make us successful at work, or an Olympic swimmer, or an award-winning writer; that’s up to us. He’s not going to cure our depression, or our baldness, or heart disease, or our cancer.
But he is going to be there saying, “How do you feel? Have a look at this.”
I named this sermon “Alone again, naturally” mostly because I liked the pun. But the song also includes the lines, “leaving me to doubt all about God and His mercy, for if He really does exist why did He desert me? And in my hour of need I truly am indeed alone again, naturally.”
That’s humanity’s great cry. It’s on the lips of the orphaned child, the grieving mother, the suddenly widowed husband. It comes from battlefield wounded, flood victims and crippled sportsmen. It’s the cry of Jesus on the cross.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But that was Jesus’ humanity crying out, not his divinity. God hadn’t forsaken Him. Nor has God ever abandoned us, though we have often abandoned Him.
In every trial we have only to reach out. He is waiting, a loyal and loving friend, to gently say, “How do you feel? Come and have a look at this.”