Out in the wild: the esssence of wilderness ministry




Joshua Smith was on his stomach, crawling through cool, muddy earth that felt clammy against his skin and caked his jeans and hiking shoes. His path was illuminated by a headlamp, and he had only a few inches of room overhead.

He admitted to feeling a little claustrophobic, but there was no retreat. The only way to go was forward toward an unknown destination.

Wilderness Week trip camps have included hiking trips on the western edge of Lookout Mountain in North Georgia, whitewater rafting adventures and cave dwelling. Memories are etched in photographs.

His reason for joining fellow participants from the Warren Willis Camp for the Wilderness Week trip to the western edge of Lookout Mountain in North Georgia was, as he put it, “To step outside myself.”

That step had become a crawl for him and fellow explorers. They held on to each other while making their way on hands and knees deep inside a narrow cave that led first to a bone-chilling underground river. He guessed the water’s temperature was about 50 degrees. Why was he there? Why were they all? They were in search of…what?

As they made their way to a clearing and dry land, the answer came. First, everyone turned off their lights, leaving them in a darkness deeper than anything anyone in the group had experienced.

“I felt utterly alone,” Smith said. “I wasn’t able to even think of anything.”

After a minute or two in complete silence, the solace was interrupted by a single lit candle. It slashed through the void with a light almost blinding in its brilliance.

As the campers let their eyes and senses adjust, the leader read from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where it is written: “In the beginning, the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

The moment washed over and through the young minds, as ancient words written centuries ago resonated fresh and alive.

“It was,” Smith said, “that time when you really see God’s wonder on display.”

David Weber, director of the Florida Riverside Camp in LaBelle, says the "outdoors is where God screams to me." He referred to the grass, lakes and rivers as "God's majesty."

That is the essence of wilderness ministry: to move beyond the chapel walls and regular church setting into God’s magnificent creation. People unplug and open their minds in a way that needs to be experienced to be grasped.

“Outdoors is where God screams to me,” said David Weber, director of the Florida Riverside Camp in LaBelle. “I can hear God’s voice so clearly, but when I leave the outdoors and go back to church the voice is quieter because everything else is so loud.”

The outdoors is where Weber, as a young boy, said he received God’s call to the ministry. His father, a Methodist minister, had seen to it that his son experienced the outdoors. There were canoe trips and camping adventures on islands in the middle of lakes in Maine.

“I remember feeling what a sense of community we were building during these trips when we realized all we had was each other...we were worshiping God’s glory,” he said.

“That’s when I remember sitting down on a log and hearing God say to me, ‘You’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life.’ When you’re in the outdoors—the trees, the grass, lakes and rivers, it’s God’s majesty. There is a calmness, a welcoming and love.”

Tanner Smith knows that feeling.

He experienced it first at the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp in Fruitland Park, where he now serves as assistant program manager. The camp, named after a 1940s era Methodist pastor who served as the Florida Conference youth director in the days after World War II, has grown into a year-round center where youth and adults experience what Smith called “thin places.”

“Those are the places where there aren’t distractions, and it’s easier to feel the presence of God and the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I have a feeling this place was set aside by God as holy ground.”

There are various programs for attendees, including day camp or sessions where they would stay there for five days. There are outdoor activities, discussions, Bible studies and devotions, all designed to open campers’ eyes to the majesty of creation. The more adventurous opt for the 10-hour drive to the trip camp in North Georgia near the Tennessee border like Joshua Smith did.

There they find steep ravines, white water rapids, cascading waterfalls, wildlife and deep, teeming forests. Smith was stunned as he hiked with others through the wilderness to see a bear chasing a deer.

And they meet God.

They meet Him on the steep cliffs and along the hiking trails. They see Him in the flights of native birds. He talks to them in the open green spaces or around the campfire at night. In the quiet, they can hear His voice more clearly than they ever have.

He is telling them that they are in a setting more magnificent than any walled cathedral they will ever see. They will hear crickets and the residents of the forest make more melodious sounds than any choir can imagine. He is welcoming them into personal fellowship with all he has created.

Maybe He is even giving them a little glimpse of what heaven must be like.

And at the bottom of a muddy crawl through a pitch-dark cave, God shows them that it was worth the journey.

“When you’re outdoors in that kind of setting, there is a calm that comes over you,” Weber said. “This is what church really should be.

“You experience God’s welcome and unconditional love. You learn trust, and you listen for nature in the moments of silence.”

The birds of the air explain it with their chirps and the flap of their wings. The wind that shakes the leaves on the majestic trees brings a message. The brilliant blue sky or the dark clouds of an approaching storm, speak with eloquence.

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon


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