When I became the pastor of the church I currently serve, there was not much to do. Not a lot of demands on my time. I would go to the office, return the calls, make some plans, meet with anyone who wanted to meet with me, write my sermons, and still have quite a bit of daylight left in the day. Our mountain home sits at 8,700 feet above sea level about seven miles from town. Our property borders 1,200 acres of public land. A rancher leases the grazing rights of the land for a month out of the summer and hunters trek across it in the fall, but other than that no one ever walks the woods, creek bottom, and open mountain meadows.
One day, when I first moved here, I was sitting in my study at church reading a book on a Monday. My administrative assistant was part-time, so no one was there. The phone wasn’t ringing. All the tasks for the day had been done and it was 1:00 in the afternoon. I was fidgeting in my chair as I read my book on prayer. I glanced out my office window and glimpsed Mt. Princeton silhouetted against a deep blue Colorado sky. I turned the page of my book but kept looking out the window towards my house sitting at the base of that mountain.
A thought crept into my mind that I might go home and sit on my deck with my book. So, I went home. As I got out of my Jeep and began to walk up the steps to my home, I felt a twinge of guilt sweep over me. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I felt as if I should be at the church doing church stuff. Or at least be there if a lost pagan dropped by needing to know how to become a Christian. (Like that never ever happens) The guilt was strong. It was the same feeling I had when I ditched class when I was in High School. I knew that feeling well. I almost got in my Jeep and went back to town; but then an inner feeling or thought came to me as I walked up the steps, “Joe, who you are becoming is more important than what you do. Let’s go for a walk together.”
I went into the house, put my boots on, grabbed a hat, leashed my dog, and we went for a long walk with the Lord. As I wandered the woods and creek bottom, I talked with the Lord about problems I was wrestling with, people I was concerned about, theology I wasn’t sure about, and marveled at the beauty of the Colorado mountains. I stopped and pulled the stem from an Indian Paintbrush and sucked the sweet nectar from its bloom. I ran my hand along the rough crumbling lichen on a boulder, I breathed deep the vanilla aroma from the bark of a ponderosa pine.
As I took in the glory of what the ancient church fathers called the second book of God, I remembered a verse from the prophet Isaiah,
“For you shall go out with joy,
And be led out with peace;
The mountains and the hills
Shall break forth into singing before you,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (55:12)
The presence of the Lord was palpable for me that afternoon. I was surrounded by his smile with every wildflower, prickly pear, poignant sage, and tawny antelope speeding away from my approach. I realized I had been walking and praying for two hours.
One of the main postures of a pastor is prayer. I found a way to waste time with God. I found a way to not be productive with God. I found a way to experience God.
My friend David Hansen wrote a book called Long Wandering Prayer about this practice that I experienced hundreds of Mondays ago.
Long wandering prayer happens on the inside like it happens on the outside. It is mental wandering in the presence of God, corresponding to physical wandering in the presence of God. Long wandering prayer involves leaving our normal environment for the express purpose of spending many hours alone with God. It involves walking, or at least moving, and stopping whenever we want, to consider a lily for as long as we desire. Long wandering prayer uses the fact that our minds wander as an advantage to prayer rather than a disadvantage. In long wandering prayer we recognize that what we want to pray about may not be what God wants us to pray about. Our obsessive drive to control our minds in the presence of God, that is, to pray about one thing or stick to one list, maybe a form of hiding from God. In this kind of prayer, we recognize the wandering mind as a precious resource for complex and startling dialogue with God.
Sometimes we might question if we are doing prayer correctly. There is no wrong way to pray. Find your way to be in the presence of God and let him sort it. Pray, as Eugene Peterson has said, the way we can instead of trying to pray the way we can’t.
I love the story of the Sunday School teacher trying to explain to a little girl how Enoch of the Old Testament went to heaven. The teacher reminded the little girl what Genesis 5:24 said:
“And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”
The little girl asked, “How could Enoch go to heaven if he did not die?” The teacher explained it this way: Well maybe one day, while on one of their long walks, God put His arm around Enoch and said, ‘Enoch, we’ve walked a long way together. It’s closer to my house than it is to yours so why don’t you just come on home with Me.’”
If I don’t come home one day, perhaps now you know why.