By Dave Smith
We’re moving, again. I was up in the attic last week. You would know I had been up there if you saw the scabs on my head. I have this habit of bumping into rafters. I wore my Yosemite National Park cap, but it didn’t help. Next time I’ll wear my bike helmet. Somewhere between bumps, I found my memory box.
In it was a picture of a young guy with hair, and no shirt, holding a running trophy. There was a trophy for winning the cha-cha during ballroom dance competition when I was 13. Think Dancing with No Stars. And there were my journals from Airborne School, Outward Bound, and Officer Advanced Camp.
As I read my journals, I realized how much my walk with God has been intertwined with physical activity and the outdoors.
God Spoke to Me
When I left my home in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the University of Michigan, I was not a Christian. My goal was to be the modern-day Renaissance man, minus any spiritual component. And so I studied hard, and I dated hard, and I ran hard: some 80 miles a week, as I trained for marathons. Somewhere on the road to chasing Olympic glory (it turns out, fantasy), God spoke to me.
I imagine he had been speaking earlier. I don’t listen well. However, something about 2.5-hour runs gives you time to listen and think. I started looking around at the beauty and order of creation. I began to wonder if there was a God who made all this, if he was interested in me.
My soul awakened as I sensed the truth of Psalm 19:1, 2: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” The summer after my sophomore year I worked at a guest ranch in Colorado. I spent hours hiking the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, marveling at the majesty of jagged peaks and stars that stretched on forever.
A year later found me deep in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. I was on a 23-day Outward Bound mountaineering course. This was a stress course designed to teach people about themselves. And it did.
I learned I stink, bad, when I don’t bathe for 23 days. I learned I did not die, or even get sick, when I ate every meal out of my canteen cup with the same greasy spoon.
And I sensed the call of God on my life. It came to a crescendo during my three-day solo.
The instructors deposited me on a small piece of land with my tarp, sleeping bag, journal, pen, and water bottle. That’s it. My directions were to stay there and confront myself. But it was too late. God was already confronting me.
The climax was my first morning alone. I had arisen and was writing these words in my journal: “It is easy to sense God’s presence when . . .” I had planned to finish the sentence, “you are in the wilderness.” But I felt thirsty and reached for my water bottle. As lifted it to my mouth, I saw a cougar walking some 25 feet away.
Apparently he was unaware of me. Had I not reached for my water at that instant, I would have missed him. I was scared and excited. He was big, and I was small, and perhaps, tasty. And yet I felt a peace inside. I took this as a sign from this God who seemed to be pursuing me.
It is funny, now, to read what I wrote as an excited pagan. “I don’t know what this all means. Does it mean that I should go into ministry to tell others that God does live? There are so many questions to answer. I feel nature is talking to me, ‘Look! God exists! He is all around you! What further proof do you need?’”
I left Colorado a few days later and went back to Michigan. But things were different. The pagan life I had been living no longer appealed to me. A few months after graduation found me walking into East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis looking for a date. A few months after that I was baptized into the Christ who had revealed himself to me.
I Speak to God
The 25 years since then have confirmed that I am what Gary Thomas calls a naturalist. I experience the reality of God in a special way outdoors. One of my friends calls me a tree hugger. That is not true. I have kissed a couple trees on the trunk, but never hugged them.
Maybe you can identify with this pathway, maybe not. Whoever or wherever you are, I encourage you to step out and experience active, physical, outdoor prayer.
Something about being outdoors stimulates my prayer life. And something about physical movement helps me pray. I find when I walk, hike, and run, I pray better. I am more attentive to God, and my prayers are more honest. It is not unusual for me to talk and listen to God as long as I am moving.
There are rhythms in creation, as each day turns to night and one season follows another. There is a rhythm to physical activity, the cadence of feet striking dirt, the sound of inhaling, exhaling. And I have found that our prayer lives need rhythms as well.
There is the daily rhythm of mornings with God in prayer and Bible reading. There are the lunchtimes walking the prayer loop near my office. There are the afternoons when I pray while running, biking, or swimming. When I observe these rhythms, I discover I am more likely to pray without ceasing.
And yet, just as a marathon runner needs a long run weekly, we need a longer time with God regularly. When I lived in New Hampshire I would go every Monday afternoon to a nearby retreat house. I would begin praying in the upstairs chapel. It was quiet, and I delighted in the light filtering through the stained-glass windows. After a while, I would wander down to the fireplace room. It was warm, sunny, and smelled like smoke. It felt like home.
I would look out at the sky and the tall evergreens. God would remind me that he was bigger than any challenge I might be facing. Then for dessert, I would step out in the trees and walk among them. Sometimes I meditated on the Stations of the Cross. Other times I sang and skipped through the pine needles. I felt like the kid I am, a child of the living God.
There were days I needed a little more time with God to engage all of me in pursuit of him. I would drive an hour to my favorite hiking spot: Mount Monadnock. There, as I headed up the Red Spot trail, I would pour out my heart to God. Maybe it was a staff issue, or money challenges, or just the gnawing reality of work never ending. I would reach the peak and stop, ponder, worship.
On the way back down the Pumpelly trail, I would usually feel lighter, as if God had taken my backpack and was carrying it himself. By the time I got home, I was ready to keep moving forward.
A few times a year I would spend at least one overnight with God. I have danced with God in Vermont, walked with him in the White Mountains, and heard him in the crashing of waves on the Maine coast.
Working With God
I have moved twice since my New England years, with another move impending. Every place I have lived, God has provided times and places for us to pray together, be it the hills of southern Indiana or northern Arkansas. Next? New York City.
I have been visiting college campuses with my oldest daughter, Katie. It has been a bit emotional, not primarily because Katie is leaving our home. We both know it is time. Most of my emotion has come from remembering a similar trip with my Dad, some 30 years ago. Thirty years! Where did they go? So much has happened between 17 and 47.
I wonder what the next 30 years will bring. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. But this much I know. I will continue to walk with God amid the trees, and runs, and prayers.
Dave Smith, professor of church planting at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, will soon begin a two-year stint as professor of church planting in residence in New York City.