So, here I am, just south of Kirksville Missouri. I’m sitting in front of a fire alone in the middle of the woods. The majority of the semester is behind me and I’m worn out; I’ve come here to recuperate, reflect, and meditate.
Being out in the backcountry reminds me of Eagle Quest, even thought it’s almost winter, everything that I need to make a fire is wet, and the ground isn’t comprised of mostly rocks. In fact, my experience as an EQ guide is really what’s driven me out here—I understand the connection between God and experiencing His creation.
I remember back in the beginning of summer I didn’t understand it. I could have explained the importance of wilderness experience, but I had no explicit first-hand encounter of my own. When planning my first trip, I flipped through the packet of potential activities/experiences, read the descriptions, and picked the ones that sounded interesting. At the time I didn’t have a clue about how effective and evocative they were.
One that I chose was the “Cave Church” experience. For those who aren’t familiar with it, I’ll give an outline: essentially the group has a church service inside of Eagle Cave with a cappella worship and a survey of the metaphors of light and darkness in Scripture. To begin, everyone goes to the back chamber of the cave—it sounds easier than it is. When the students get to the back room, everyone turns off their flashlights and sits in complete darkness and silence for a minute or so. The group then describes what they see and how they feel. The guide lights a candle and reads Psalm 18:28: “For You light my lamp; / The LORD my God illumines my darkness.” The group then starts to sing, and in between each song the guide lights another candle and reads another verse that uses the metaphor of light. After a few songs the guide lights the last candle and reads Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your father who is in heaven.” The group discusses the last verse and their role as “lights in the darkness.”
If you’re like I was, you’re thinking, “that sounds pretty neat.” When I lead it for the first time I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t neat—it was awesome. Once getting past the fears surrounding the darkness and claustrophobia of the cave (a positive and rewarding experience in and of itself) my group was participating and fully engaged. The unusual, sensory challenge that faced them had their complete attention. The metaphor was intense; we could see what a huge difference just one candle made compared to complete darkness. As an English major I know the power of language and poetic metaphor, but I was astounded by how effective physical, sensory metaphor is. By actually experiencing the concept, my group had a much more profound understanding of the biblical idea of light and our role as “lights” than if we’d just studied a few passages.
I ended up doing the Cave Church with several groups throughout the summer, and each time it was different. I got to see how flexible wilderness experiences are and how a talented guide can adapt them to complement curriculum or to address individual group needs. Nature provides a wealth of material for spiritual analogies; the possibilities of experiences are limited only by our creativity.
Any youth pastor worth their title knows the value of a retreat. The removal of students from quotidian distractions and pressures is crucial in enabling them to clear their heads and focus on what matters—Christ. Retreating not only to a camp, but out into the wild, multiplies this. We aren’t just disconnected from external influences; we are fundamentally connected to Creation and the conscious awareness of our own humanity. Immersion in nature is perfect for concentrating on who we truly are, who God truly is, and the relationship between those two realities.
I’ve only just scraped the surface of the value of the wilderness experience. I could elaborate on how it heightens the ability to learn or on the leadership, perspective, and skills it promotes, but for now I won’t. Let it suffice to say that over the summer I really came to believe in the idea of wilderness experience. Even now, warmed only by my fire and surrounded by coyotes and raccoons, I’m able to reflect on God’s goodness and glory with a fresh mind.