Monday, October 6, 2014

More Beautiful Than a Sunrise

Week before last, I spent six days on a spiritual retreat called HeartQuest, completely unplugged from civilization. With 28 total strangers, I boarded a bus for a ranch in the Texas Hill Country, where we would steal away with our Beloved.

I won't share the details of what we did there because our time was sacred. But I will tell you that I came home with 28 sisters, all cherished daughters of the King. Here are some of my favorite memories of my time with God....

On Thursday, I set off at sunrise to find the place where God was calling me to spend the day alone with Him. I was excited but also nervous because I wondered how I would hear His leading. I walked straight down the ranch house drive, a backpack on my back and a camp chair slung over one shoulder. "Should I go left or right?" I whispered. "Or just keep going straight?"

All I heard was birds chirping.

As I waited for direction, I couldn't keep my eyes off the sunrise. Looking to the east, my eyes fell on a little drive. I was drawn to it, as if following it would take me closer to the rising sun. But I hadn't heard the Voice of God. "Is it okay to go this way?" I asked.

All I heard was the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze.

Squinting against the sun, I struggled to breathe against the gathering tightness in my chest. "How will I know where you want me to go?" I asked, not bothering to hide my frustration. "I don't hear anything."

A couple of tears rolled down my cheeks. "Why is it so hard to hear you?"

Just then, I spotted a white and black metal sign: Keep Out.

I laughed out loud and wiped my nose with the back of my hand as I turned in my tracks. "Okay, that's pretty clear guidance."

With that rueful laughter, all the tension drained away and I began to just enjoy walking on these gorgeous grounds. I stopped listening so hard and just let my feet take me where they wanted to go. I squeezed through a crack next to the large iron gate, crossed the country road, and followed some wheel ruts that could pass for a road. Both sides of the road were wooded, with rather squat trees and a few cactus plants.

 After a few hundred yards, I lurched abruptly to the right, headed into the woods. I hiked due west, but didn't stray too far from the wheel-rut road; I've always had a fear of being lost in the woods. I set up my purple chair under a circle of evergreen trees. The branches were only sparsely covered, but they were still pretty, and later I would be thankful for their modest shade.

I'd just settled into my chair when six or seven deer trotted past. I could barely glimpse them through the trees, but I could make out a couple of does and some fawns. One of the does froze, nose lifted in the air as she searched me out. A moment later, they all ran deeper into the woods, their hooves thundering softly on the pine needles that cushioned the ground.

Tears pricked my eyes as I sang softly, "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee. You alone are my heart's desire, and I long to worship thee."

I thanked God for sending the deer and asked Him if he could send some a little closer so I could get a better look.

Over the next few hours, I didn't see any deer, but I did see an assortment of baby trees ranging from two inches to about three feet tall. They were so cute, these miniature trees with nearly adult-sized leaves. One tiny tree had just four leaves which dwarfed its spindly branches. I thought of all the Bible verses about trees and imagined my own growth, my gradual transformation into an "oak of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor." (Isaiah 61:3)

As I examined a tree trunk intently during a short hike, a lizard startled me, and I cried out. It darted away to safety before I could get a good look at it, and I was disappointed. But God graciously sent me another lizard later while I sat in my chair inside the circle of trees. It stood at the foot of my chair as if it were posing for me. Instead of cringing as I usually do when I spot anything lizard-like, I marveled at its tiny snout, tail, and clawed feet.

Several times throughout the day, I noticed what appeared to be a hawk circling lazily overhead. (I later learned it was a turkey vulture, but I prefer to think of it as a hawk.) As I admired its effortless flight, I praised God for the way His creatures delight in doing what they were made to do. That's how I feel when I write, and even more so when I open my heart to love someone.

I also saw a jackrabbit at one point. Its tall, pointed ears were definitely rabbit-like, but I was shocked to see it walking on all fours rather than hopping. It was most peculiar and quite cute.

The only creatures I did not enjoy were the gnats that buzzed relentlessly in my ears and nose. I figured they must have some spiritual meaning, like how we have to persevere and push past the distractions that pull our focus from God's purpose in our lives.

It was an imaginary creature who made me laugh at myself. A city girl to the core, I haven't had much experience with peeing outside. The first time, I didn't take gravity into account, and I ended up making a puddle right behind my heels. The second time, I felt pretty clever when I found a gentle slope and tried to pee downhill. However, I'd been drinking so much water and Gatorade that I--well, let's just say that the stream was so strong that it defied gravity and probably splashed a bit onto my jeans. [Men, count your blessings.] The third time, I went back to my gentle slope and bent into a deep pli√©with my behind just an inch or two off the ground so as to minimize the splashing.

I'd just started peeing when a tuft of grass tickled my butt. Thinking it was a bug, I lurched forward, spraying pee onto my shoes. Aiyee! There was no one to laugh with but God, and we shared a good chuckle. It reminded me of the first time I had shared a joke with God.

The best moment came at the end of the day, while I was engrossed in reading some notes from friends and family that brought me tears of joy. When a loud snort interrupted my reverie, I looked up to see a proud, magnificent buck staring right at me. He was standing in a clearing, maybe 50 feet away. I caught my breath, eyes wide with wonder. After ten seconds or so, he snorted again and galloped away.

In all the day's adventures, I'd forgotten my morning prayer, but God hadn't. He'd even prompted that deer to catch my attention so I wouldn't miss the moment. "Oh, thank you," I breathed. I felt certain now that I'd found exactly the spot God had chosen for me.

Early Morning Rendezvous

Two days later, I awoke long before 6, much earlier than I'd planned. I lay in bed for a good 30 minutes, trying vainly to fall back to sleep. At home, when I wake up in the dark, I figure God wants to talk to me. But at the ranch, I shared a room with three other women, and there was no cozy prayer closet, only a cold hallway. "Can we talk later? I'm really sleepy," I prayed silently.

At last, I gave up and drug myself out of bed. As I pulled on my clothes by the light of my flashlight, a wonderful thought occurred to me. I could watch the sun rise! It would be so amazing to see it peeping over the horizon across the wide open field. I hurriedly gathered my Bible and journal and padded down the stairs and into the darkness, grabbing a camp chair off the porch.

I set up my chair next to the ranch drive, just at the edge of the meadow, and watched the sky intently. Slowly, slowly, the blackness gave way to gray light. Where was the sun?  Could I be facing the wrong direction? I thought of the time my friend Angela and I had stayed at Hideaway Ranch. We watched the most gorgeous sunset over the back porch of our cabin, and then watched for the sunrise on that same porch! We were so mad at ourselves when we remembered that the sun rises on the opposite horizon from where it sets.

This time, I was certain. I distinctly remembered admiring the sunrise across that same meadow.

While I waited, I talked with Jesus. I shared something that was heavy on my heart, and I felt a peaceful assurance that He was not only going to take care of everything, but that His plan for this situation would end in a beautiful picture of His grace.

After 20 minutes or so, several of our leaders emerged from the gray darkness, walking down the long drive toward the main house. "Sarah, is that you?" one called. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting for the sunrise," I answered.

"Oh, I don't think there will be much to see today," Toni said. (Or maybe it was Ginny; it was hard to tell in the darkness.) "Too many clouds."

I smiled. Surely God hadn't woken me up and brought me out here if there wasn't going to be a sunrise. Besides, don't the clouds usually make a sunrise even more colorful?

After another ten minutes, I had to admit that Toni was right. It was now fully light, but there was not a hint of color on the horizon. Instead, there were many, many shades of gray. I had to laugh. A gray sunrise!

And then it dawned on me (so to speak). The beauty of this silent morning wasn't in the sunrise. It wasn't even in the birds chirping. The beauty was Him. He had called me out there to spend time with Him.
Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:14)
"Thank you that there was no sunrise," I prayed, my cheeks wet with tears. "If there had been, I would have been distracted. You are so much more beautiful than a sunrise, Beloved."

I want to carry the beauty of that gray sunrise the rest of my days.

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