“I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me.” – Psalm 119:93
Rising this morning, the haunting memory of a thought, like that of a vapor upon a distant hillside, shadowed my presence. It was here, knowing that the past week or so has been a struggle not only physically due to an illness but also spiritually. The latter was due to the former, which had put me off of the schedule that had been developing over the summer. This change put me at odds with the ability to walk in the spirit as much as my daily routine had been allowing. It was troubling to feel this way, knowing how easily we are thrown off course. Thankfully, earlier this week, my footsteps began to return somewhat to that familiar path.
Preparing to enter the Tanawha Trail, we parked at the trailhead off old 221, a gravel road stretching from Blowing Rock to Foscoe. There next to the parking area, where Black Angus cattle grazing on the lush green hillside. At the time, only the sight of livestock had quickened my heart. All those years raising them on the farm back in Chatham had ingrained in me a special connection to the beast. Here again on hills above us, those summertime hides, “fat and slick,” as Uncle John used to say, glistened in the morning sun. Suddenly, within a moment, it made one feel home again – that it was as if you had walked through that ancient doorway of memory and entered back into the loving fold of family. It was precisely what was needed to rejuvenate the spirit within.
Inspired as only God can do, we are often amiss without him, as we mistakenly feel, but in these times of isolation, we are drawn ever more close. As the cliché says, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” So, it seems sometimes we need to be reminded that without him, we are like a ship adrift on the sea with no rudder to guide our way.
It always impresses me how God knows what takes us back to our roots, to the place where we first encountered the world. For some, it’s a unique park or vacation spot. For others, like myself, it is the abundant adventures and experiences of our rural childhood. For me, it was exploring those vast pastures, forests, and lands of the farms of southern Indiana. There in those hills and hollers of the Midwest, God’s creation became part of my life. From those early impressions, when all seems confused and lost, there is a baseline, so to speak, to which God knows my thoughts can be reset too. From there, those formational memories, one can once more journey forth to where their next footsteps will lead. The reference to technology is not mistaken but purposeful.
That pasture’s very imagery, the one in which the Tanawha Trail ran through, its slope, the cattle, and the sunrise shedding its morning glow upon its face, reminded me of that long-ago mountain. So often, when we revisit places of our youth, that object which once seemed so massive now has shrunk in size. Yes, that mountain of my childhood was actually little more than a slight rise in the ground compared with where we now stood – we called it Sled Hill. In those distant recollections, it was a place where you could stand on the edge of that tiny town, New Harmony, and survey the entirety of everything below from the rooftop perspective. There interlaced with rising oaks and sycamore trees were the peaks and steeples of homes and churches. It was the first time that the feeling of standing upon the earth and looking out across the vista below felt closer to God. There, in that shadow of where life’s journey would eventually lead, there was no concept from which to compare that scene. It was forever etched into the mind as what it must be like to stand near the top of the world.
In the moment, surrounded by a host of relatives, we feel like this will be where we spend the rest of our days. In our heart of hearts, we are content with that. For decades it was the way things went. But then times changed. The world we knew changed, and suddenly we found ourselves thrust into the never-ending stream of advances in humanity. We were forced to adapt and overcome a very different lifestyle from the life of our forefathers. Secular society told us that we had to “make something of ourselves,” whatever that was supposed to mean. But those of us raised in Sunday School had heard something else, that alone we can do nothing. Thus began the conflict of interest.
Some take it upon themselves to believe that they alone can make “it” happen. Others realize, some sooner than others, that we can never do it on our own. Some go off to college. Others join the military. Some seek to escape the privation of that quiet way of life, seeking adventure or wealth. Either way, very few remained behind to stay in the place where we all thought we would never leave. Those that remained wonder about the lives of those gone on. Those that had to leave, or chose to leave, never forgot from whence they came. The question always burned within them, “What if I had never left?”
There is a saying that of itself seems trivial, but when it is explored more deeply, its truth resonates through the ages, “Once you leave home, you can never go back.” For what we find, is that even though you might physically be able to return, you are never the same once you leave. Your growth through the sheer experiences of whatever you found on your journey changes you. It is then, once you return, you see with new eyes what one could not explain to you before you left. Painfully, as we feel those around us unable to relate to what has changed us, we seek to find connections where there once was no question about relationships. However, we then discover that what is around us is not all that there is in life.
So we take a break from the reunion, walking out to that familiar landmark, whatever it might be, the beach, that old home place, or for me, the crest of Sled Hill, and pause for a moment and think about all that has transpired since we last stood on this spot. We find that the terrestrial has changed very little. Oh, there might be a fallen tree, a sand dune out of place, or perhaps a new roof on the old home place, but that which was physical remains the same. We suddenly realize it’s not the place that has changed, but us.
In Jesus’ day, he tried to convey to his disciples this same message, that once you turn to serve God in the way in which he asked, you would be forever altered. There would be no going back to who you once were, “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Even as they found their understanding of Jesus’ parables and teachings challenging to comprehend, it was even more so for those Pharisees and Chief Priests. Even when Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, met with Jesus, he too could not comprehend what Jesus was saying even though he sought him out, knowing that something about him was calling him to believe. As Jesus explained, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.“
They could not begin to wrap their minds around God in the flesh, let alone that Jesus told them that they did not know him or his Father. “Then cried Jesus in the temple as he taught, saying, Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am: and I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not.“
Like returning home, once we are changed by our travels, there is something likewise that will never be the same to those who have not found Christ in their lives. Until they take that similar path in life, those that stayed behind find it odd that you don’t want to go hang out beneath the bridge, drink beer, and skip rocks across the river. It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey to them that you have changed. You no longer enjoy the things of the flesh but instead find it more desirable to find those who are lost and engage them, striving to bring them closer to the Father.
Since those humble beginnings, God’s plan has led me to stand on the earth and look out upon remarkable vestiges of landscape. From my current home in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the mountains in our western states, to those beautiful, inspiring Waldensians valleys in the Cottien region of the Alps in Europe, God has opened my eyes to more of his creation as time would allow, and likewise, my mind to the understanding of his word. Although time seems to be running out, there are many more mountains to climb and much more to realize. Therefore, each day that there remains of this life, it is with a passion and desire that we should seek God in all of what he has bestowed upon us and to go wherever he calls.
From standing atop Sled Hill to walking up the Tanawha trail, there comes a time when we can feel the connection – how our past has shaped our future. Our walk with the Lord prepares us for what is to come. When you can sense a presence more wondrous than your own, to know that when we reach for that fateful day to finally stand, or rather kneel in his presence, we will then know what it has all been about. It is then we can only hope to hear the words, “Welcome home child, welcome home.”
We shall then gladly say, “Thanks be to God.”
 Luke 9:62 KJV
 John 3:8-15 KJV
 John 7:28 KJV