I was searching, and knew that if I was ever to get to where I wanted to be, to find my way I’d need to look somewhere new. To not just turn up the workouts to the next level, or listen to even more podcasts and read more books. To not rinse and repeat in my old experiences, but really get outside my comfort zone.
My friend Chris, a newly minted pastor, was hosting a Christian men’s retreat for a new ministry he was establishing. I’d only known Chris for a couple of months, attending a few of his monthly home church events, and had no clue who else would be attending the retreat, and definitely no clue as to what to expect as I’d never done anything like this prior.
What would I have to admit to and share with strangers? Would they understand where I was coming from and the pain and journey that brought me there? Would they “grade” my Faith, or expose the many shortcomings in my beliefs and practice?
Somehow I overcame these fearful questions, to not only say Yes, but be one of the first to commit for this inaugural retreat event. With the little I knew about Chris, his passion was clear and knew it would be well worth spending the long weekend with him and his cohort.
So away I went, flying up to the North Carolina mountains to join Chris and four other gentlemen, to be a guinea pig for Chris’s new program, to validate the retreat’s experience, agenda and material but ultimately, to help each other improve our relationships with Him.
The four other men, besides Chris and I, included:
- Pastor Omar, who was taking time away from his flock just to support Chris and attend
- The owner of a well established Atlanta area Faith-based retreat property, Jed,
- Our host, Todd, a business leader who was so committed to his faith that he bought the North Carolina property and cabin just to host such events (and who I worked with some thirty years ago, but didn’t recognize right away),
- Chris’s brother Michael, who like me was early on in his spiritual journey, but really committed lto overcoming life’s struggles and growing in his faith. Thank goodness for Michael, who was not just a novice like me, but became my fishing partner for much of the weekend.
And so together we dove into the curriculum, an escape from the day to day noise to focus on our relationship with God and seek the Holy Spirit more deeply. We listened to faith music, prayed together, reviewed scripture, and assessed the pains that we were holding onto and that were holding us back. We took a personality test, spiritual gifts assessment and love languages test helping us discuss who we were today, what made us tick and what we had to offer in Purpose.
And in between, we discussed our personal stories, challenges and faith with each other while prepping meals, grabbing a bite, or fishing. Honestly, despite an entire weekend of fishing before and after each session, and on breaks, Michael and I only managed to catch one small mouth bass, but we really had a blast casting worms as we were casting crowns (throwing our ego, pride, accomplishments, achievements and false sense of control at His feet).
All of the scripture, songs, prayers and assessments were all designed for and leading to one special morning on the last day of the retreat – A walk in the woods.
Chris had attended a retreat a few years earlier with his wife Lori, at Jed’s farm outside of Atlanta. This retreat culminated with a walk in the woods on Jed’s property, and as Chris and Lori took this walk, they asked God for direction and for answers to several life changing questions. And the answers came back clearly, leading Chris to take a 180 degree career change, evolving from a great corporate marketing gig with Expedia to inspire Chris to become a pastor and a counselor and for Chris and Lori to create a retreat ministry,
And so Chris knew the power of a walk in the woods as the exclamation point to the weekend. If executed properly, this walk could strip away all the noise of the day to day so you could peacefully converse, ask questions, and most importantly, listen. And if the right questions were asked, the walk could help the hiker find themselves, surrender to the next level, answer questions, instill purpose and ultimately, change lives.
For me, I needed guidance on what was next for me – as a parent, in my career, and in potential future relationships. For me, as I walked the trail, I needed to find the path he wanted me to walk upon for my future.
And so I mapped out my plan for the walk the night before in a journal, Leveraging the growth-through-GRIEF model of Grace, Reflection, Intention, Elevation and Faith:
- Grace – A list of my sins and transgressions, and the forgiveness I needed to seek for myself, and a list of the forgiveness I needed to grant to others I felt had did me wrong, not just recently, but for as far back as I could remember
- Reflection – A tally of all the blessings I have been provided, giving thanks for what I was most grateful for
- Intention – An inventory of what I needed help on the most, and the questions I needed answers for around each of these situations and challenges
- Elevation – An intention to find peace in the beautiful nature surrounding the walk, the little things around me, leveraging the quiet and meditation to listen intensely and to be sure the answers to the questions are received and not missed or distorted
- Faith – A commitment that no matter what is provided in response to my questions, to follow the answers that I receive, even if the responses didn’t exactly match what I wanted or expected.
As we drove to the state park, to hike through the rolling hills around Badin Lake near our cabin, I read through my journal, adding a note or two here and there, and clearly sharing a nervousness with Micheal, as we both had a long list of questions to present and had no idea what to expect.
We arrived, said a prayer of support and intention for each other, and then took different trails, to assure that we had the space needed to commune properly during our three hour journey.
Journal in hand to guide my process, one foot after the other, I marched past campgrounds and escaped civilization. It was extremely important for me to start the conversation, not with a bunch of questions and wishes, but humbling myself first: “Forgive me for I have sinned”.
There was much forgiveness I sought first, especially asking for forgiveness regarding:
- Leading with way too often with my ego and pride first
- Resentment and disrespectful acts committed against my late wife, especially in later years as the sickness took its toll on us both
- Moving on too fast after her passing, seeking solace in relationship to cover up the hurt, doubts and more
- Putting idols first, a pursuit of work and material rewards and distractions
- Wrongs and disrespect doled out to various family members and friends over the years.
“Lord please forgive me for …”, I tried to go as far back as I can remember, to get all of my sins out there, and as I began to vocalize each to Him, it led me to remember other transgressions and sins I didn’t have in my original list. Needless to say, as the list expanded, this took a while, and was incredibly cleansing.
From asking forgiveness for myself, I then moved on to grant forgiveness to others, those who I felt had done me wrong, made me feel less than adequate, or left me when I needed them most. “I forgive …. For ….. “
It is within these past hurts we hold onto, that most of our self-doubt and pains reside, and becomes a source of many triggers, much unhealthy behaviors, and many harmful indulgences and additions.
Forgiving those who hurt you doesn’t mean you are condoning their actions or erasing boundaries that were crossed, but it does allow you to let go of the anger and hurt, delivering you to freedom. The forgiveness of others is not about them, but about you, your feelings and your mental health.
And as I let go of the burdens on my own heart regarding my own sins, and let go of the hurt from what others had done to me, I could feel each step on that walk getting lighter, and knew at that point, that I was ready for the next step.
Next, I went through all of the blessings bestowed upon me, and all of the elements of my life that I am thankful and grateful for. From my journal, I read each aloud.
Gratitude for my beautiful daughters, my career, my health and so much more. One by one I vocalized each thankfully, realizing in the process just how many gifts He has provided, and reminding me that “To much is given, much is expected.”
Having cleansed and given thanks, it was time to ask questions about His plans for me and to seek His guidance.
Traversing through the hills, I now made my way down to the lakefront part of the path.
Walking along the beautiful shore, I went through the list of questions I had prepared the night before.
For each situation I had doubts about in my life, or had questions about the future, I sought guidance, verbalizing the questions to Him.
The situations I had the most questions about included:
- My daughters – what I needed to do to become a better parent and support them in every way
- Relationships – revealing and guiding me to the best possible partner
- Mission in retirement and ministry – help with focus, the content and framework, people to help and more.
With each question asked, I now sought quiet, trying to clear my mind by focusing on my breath, the sound of the birds, water waves and wind, and the noise of each step on the path. I captured the beauty in all of what was around me – the light through the trees, the sparkle shine from each wave on the lake.
I listened, and didn’t hear a thing.
Quiet before the Lord, I listened more intently. And still nothing. Not a single answer given.
Chris spoke about how he received direct answers and confirmations to every question during the walk and reinforcements after, and I was sure I wasn’t doing the walk properly. Maybe my faith wasn’t strong enough yet, or perhaps I wasn’t conversing right.
The doubt turned into a cacophony of noise in my own head, so loud it assured me that I “couldn’t hear a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant”, much less a thing He wanted me to know. I was like a child, expecting answers right away, instead of understanding the answers would all come in His timing.
Disappointed and questioning, I walked into this opening on the path, and onto a large sunlit boulder on the water. Facing the sun, I breathed deeply, hands at my sides and palms out, I quieted my mind, surrendered control and opened my heart.
And then it happened. Words filled my head, and not the random noise and self-doubt prior. There was a magic and wisdom in these phrases I was hearing, and I wrote them as quickly as I could in my journal.
The first answer was indeed provided in that moment, about my go-forward mission, reinforcing with the words he gifted me that day that my destiny is defined by words he will provide through me, to help others through these writings, videos, podcasts and more.
And with a little patience, I received answers and guidance on relationships shortly after that morning, and about my daughters not too long after. All in His time, not mine.
To hear you have to listen, not just for any immediate reply, but for delayed responses, and subtle guides, nudges and winks in the right direction. The answers are sometimes provided via words in your own head, as I received and wrote the message in the poem, while other times you will come across the answer in a scripture verse that speaks to you, other people who are presented or speak the answers you seek, through events, in art, in that special song and more.
You have to be listening patiently, and the answer may not be the answer you were seeking or ever wanted (which may be why so many are afraid to have the conversation and ask God for guidance on the tough questions). You know the answer is from Him when it is surrounded with peace, joy and clarity, and NOT be a source for amplified anxiety, confusion and chaos.
And once you have the answer you sought, it is important to act on the guidance, in faith and trust. Like when you were a child, when an answer was provided from your Dad, when you hear make sure you act on the answer, so he knows you are listening and appreciate the guidance.
For me, this walk in the woods was exactly what I needed at this time, providing much needed space to deepen my spiritual connection, and get the much needed answers and reinforcement needed.