I spent yesterday afternoon introducing some young leaders to the idea of getting extended time with God in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We had unseasonably warm and sunny weather, so that made the experience extra-pleasant. But honestly, I would have been excited even if the day would have brought freezing temperatures and overcast skies.
I got to the Botzum trailhead a half-hour before anyone else, and I took advantage of the opportunity to hike north on the Towpath Trail, past a series of frozen bogs, to the intersection with Ira Road. I can’t say that I settled quickly into a sense of deep and meaningful communion with God out on the trail — as I was checking weather reports and trail maps, thinking about how to set up the young leaders for success, and coordinating communication with everyone who was on their way (or thinking about making their way) to the Park. Even so, I enjoyed the sunshine, and I was happy to be out in nature. I was looking forward to sharing this experience with others. It was just a scattered, shallow happiness.
Just after turning around at the Ira Road intersection, Jake and Delaney sent word of their arrival in Botzum. I told them to start walking north, while I walked south, and we’d meet somewhere in the middle. Around the same time we met up with each other, Dylan let us know that he was on the trail, too. Just a little north of Botzum, we all intersected and walked together to the train station while starting to discuss ways that we might be able to use the next hour or so to connect with God.
I talked to them about cultivating disciplines of wonder… prayer… reflection… reading the Bible… resting… journaling… And then, we all prayed together to set the stage for our individual encounters with God. We took a quick picture together by the train station, and then we each went our separate ways, with plans to rendezvous around 3:30 PM (when we thought others might be coming to join us).
I walked south along the Towpath Trail, in hopes of making it all the way to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s southernmost border. It wasn’t the most pleasant pathway in the Park — at least not the first section, just south of Botzum — because it went directly past the City of Akron’s Waste / Water Treatment facilities: looking quite industrial and smelling quite organic (to put it delicately). Still, at this point in the afternoon, my thoughts were unsettled. I felt vaguely happy — to be out in the sun, away from Kent, together with friends — but I didn’t feel any profound sense of connection with God. The spiritual effect of the walk was pretty neutral.
As I kept walking, though, I thought more about Jake, Delaney, and Dylan. I prayed for them according to some of the concerns and questions they’d expressed back at the train station. And the more I walked, talked, and prayed, the more my heart welled up with a deep and abiding sense of affection for these friends. My superficial happiness from earlier in the afternoon shifted towards a truer, deeper joy. I felt increasingly thankful: for the blue skies and herons and beavers and sycamore trees… but especially for the people in my life. Eventually, my thoughts drifted to the other H2O leaders with whom I worked most closely, and then onto other people in other circles of acquaintance as well. I thought about my friend Dan and felt compelled to text him some words of encouragement. I prayed through some particular points of pain and difficulty others had shared with me earlier in the week and brought God into the conversation on these points. I felt God’s nearness — in that moment, but also in all the disparate moments that funneled into that time of prayer…
And then I looked up and noticed my surroundings.
On my right, the Cuyahoga River rolled north towards Lake Erie: bubbly, brown, swollen with melted snow and ice, wild and free and beautiful. On the left, a stone retaining wall rose up from beside the path and, beyond it, a large brown pipeline, perhaps 8’ to 12’ (2.5 to 4 meters) in diameter: the main sewer line from Akron to its Waste / Water Treatment facilities.
I was literally walking between a crap-ton of human excrement and a beautiful fountain of God’s Creation! It seemed like an apt metaphor for life and ministry. The way of love and faith must, necessarily, touch on both the mess of mankind and the glory of God. And as much as I often long for pristine wilderness, but in-between places — like that of the southernmost portion of the Towpath Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park — are beautiful places to be. It was just what I needed to hear; there’s meaning in the mess and the majesty.
When our group reconvened in Botzum, it was encouraging to hear that God met the others in similar — but distinct — ways that afternoon. There really is something amazing that happens when we seek God, and I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity for this kind of experience.