Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Grateful to have been there

Over my shoulder, a backward glance...

Over this last weekend, I took a trip up to the Wisconsin Dells area to be part of a very special event. My friend and fellow seminary student Mike Willis planned to ask his girlfriend (and fellow seminary student) Michelle Sabovik to marry him Saturday night at dinner - and had invited a number of friends and family members to join him for a surprise party and gathering immediately afterwards at the Whitetail Ridge lodge on the Wisconsin River.

Mike, Michelle and I started class together at LSTC a year ago, beginning our journey in Pentateuch class, and all three of us were part of the Gospel Choir last year. Mike and I survived Greek, Pastoral Care and Worship classes (not to mention the Gospel Choir gala and recording sessions) together; we were part of study-groups that alternated between serious study, hysterical laughter, and foxhole prayers with some regularity. But with me not in class, and not really connected to seminary this semester, I let my "feeling-apart-from-ness" push me away from a number of friends here - including Mike and Michelle. They only lived a block away...but in my feeling lousy about my finances and my status with the candidacy process, I let that distance get much greater than it should have, I'm sorry to admit.

But when it was time to get planning "the weekend" for his proposal, Mike made sure I knew I was welcome...and I was grateful to accept his invitation to join them "up north." So it was that after breakfast Saturday morning, I got my Camry rolling north on I-94 on a four-hour "driving retreat" towards Lake Delton, Wisconsin.

Now, some folks would not find four hours of driving (let alone playing dodge-em-cars at 75-85 miles an hour on I-94) as any kind of calming spiritual time. But I'd made sure that I had plenty of time to get up there, and I had a pile of Christian music to accompany me up there. I also knew that my home congregation, Atonement Lutheran, had two big projects going last weekend that needed some prayer. Not only was it their Alpha session's "Holy Spirit Weekend," but my friends in the Atonement prayer ministry were hosting their second "Power in the Spirit" prayer conference, and I wanted to make sure that I took time to be praying for them, and the success of both events, as I traveled.

My family has always lived where the trees turned colors in the fall, and I have wonderful memories of just going for drives to see the colors. (In fact, for many years the only use that I could remember our family Bible getting was in pressing fall leaves for autumn decorations around the house.) So being on the road and seeing fall colors was a pleasant reminder of days gone by. This trip was a little late to enjoy the change of colors - an hour north of Hyde Park, it was clear that the colors had definitely peaked in the last week. Still, there was enough color to remind me of the truth that Nature provides wondrous testimonies to the existence of God.

In literature and music, the message of the day seemed to echo the prophet Joel: "Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity" (Joel 2:13). I heard it in the reading from Emilie Griffin's "Wilderness Time," saying that when we encounter troubles, that they are not punishment or a judgement sent from God, but rather trials to form and shape us. I haven't felt that way for quite a while, I guess...for some reason I just don't hear it or feel it that way. The struggles and depression I've fought with have felt more like "incineration" than "the refiners fire," I'm afraid. So I'm trying to think about my experiences differently, I guess...trying to look more through Heaven's eyes than through my own.

I heard it again from the radio - this time, in the words of the group Third Day's song "Come On Back To Me." In the refrain of this great, classic-rockin' song I found the words of the prophet Joel take on new meaning as I rolled northward. But I also heard the prayers of the father for the prodigal son - and found much encouragement yet again in the ways God reaches out to wandering, ragamuffin kids like me.

Going past mile marker 340, just over the line into Wisconsin, there was one of those "oh, wow..." moments of pure laughter, as I saw the sign for "Bong Recreation Center." Now, I'd seen a picture of this as part of a couple of email image collages, but I always thought it was some made-up thing. Seeing it for real was hysterical! (God knows that in my misspent youth, I'd been looking for that kind of recreation site for years!)

Up between Milwaukee and Madison, some beautifully powerful images. The sky was very dark and stormy to the north-east, but to the north-west was sunshine and blue sky. Sunshine poured down like God's own spotlight from my left, causing the gold of the cornstalks, the green of the winter wheat and the yellows and reds of the leaves to pop out in amazing beauty. I truly believe that there are no golds, no oranges, and no electric reds that can compare with what God offers in nature's color palette in the fall.

One hillside along the highway was almost aflame with what looked like red sumac branches, standing out in the sunshine even more dramatically against the dark blue-grey of the storm clouds behind them. What incredible beauty I was witness to (although I have to admit that if I had been doing this drive during the driving rain, I might have thought differently!). But the promised rains never came to Wisconsin, and it turned out to be a great (if cold!) afternoon and evening, and a beautiful day Sunday.

By exit 108, the countryside looked so much like my father's family homestead in upstate New York that it brought tears to my eyes. Hills, trees, fields of corn, farms, and splashes of color among the evergreens...I'd not realized how much I missed the natural beauty of upstate New York (even the little you see from the interstate). And as I got into the Wisconsin Dells area, I saw flashbacks from Niagara Falls, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge...if you've been to any of those, you've been on the main drag of the Dells. Ripley's "Believe It Or Not," gift and souvenir shops, "hand-made" moccasins for sale, all-you-can-eat buffets...you name it, it was there...

I got up to the lodge - they called it "a log cabin," but in reality it was a 4-plus bedroom log house. Trust me, this "log cabin" came with Corian countertops, leather sofas and recliners, and a home theatre setup with a 50-plus-inch plasma HD-TV. (Ah, what Abe Lincoln might have been with a setup like this...) I got some pretty pictures of the area around the lodge...even more reminders of the amazing extent of God's creation and beauty.

Most of Mike's family and friends were in their 20's - which meant that the whole "I'm old enough to be your father" thing was quite literally true. But it didn't seem to matter much - except when they were talking about tastes in music, or listening to their various drinking war stories. The supplies for the weekend were typical of 20-somethings...some easy-to-prepare spaghetti and meat sauce, some bread, some fixings for S'mores...and about 8 cases of beer (!). Fortunately, it didn't turn out to be that kind of party - most everyone was more focused on celebrating the new fiancees than in getting loaded (for which I was very grateful).

The suspense as Mike brought Michelle down the stairs to the theatre room was almost unbearable - and the look of surprise on Michelle's face as the lights came on was entirely worth the journey up there. There was much hugging, much laughter, and all the elements of celebration that I think Mike had hoped for in the evening. And it was great to catch up with several of my LSTC friends, who have been going about 100 miles an hour with class, ministry-in-context work, and the like. We spent some time outside around a fire, toasting S'mores - but it quickly got too cold for me, and I wimped-out and went back inside.

We didn't really hit the hay until about 1 - and my poor friends Susie, Emily and Tom had to leave at 5 AM to get back for their ministry-in-context church services Sunday morning. For me, I was content to "worship at St. Mattress" (as my sister Sandy says) and to wake up to a wonderful Czech blend of coffee, milk, and cinnamon prepared by Mike's friend Hannah. Then off to Paul Bunyan's for a lumberjack-sized breakfast, and then the crowd headed off to one of the indoor water-park. Not knowing the attractions in the area, I had not thought to bring a bathing suit to Wisconsin in the late fall (gee, wonder why?) so I just got into the car, drove around the area and moseyed on home.

Looking back, I thank God for so many things - for the gift of nature's beauty, for the freedom to be able to relax and make the drive, for time away in a place where there is real water pressure in the showers, and no screaming sirens through the night. But most of all, I give thanks for the gift of friendship, for the bond of love that was celebrated that night in Wisconsin, and for being able to be there and be "a part of" instead of "apart from."

Congratulations, Mike and Michelle...and thank you for letting me be a part of your special weekend. May your love for each other only be exceeded by God's love for each of you.

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