Thanksgiving weekend of 2017, I found myself at a retreat center on top of a mountain in North Carolina.
After 17 years of marriage, this was my first holiday weekend with no football scores, cuddles with the kids watching Christmas movies, shopping sales, or leftover turkey recipes. The boys were with their dad in his new life and it was a real moment for me to process that my 'old' life was no longer.
My M.O. in these times, when faced with difficult feelings that can’t be resolved, is to tuck away. I let wounds heal. I give myself space to process. And in this case, grieve loss.
On the drive down South, a huge pile of books covering my backseat to read over the 3-day solo trek, I heard God whisper for me to stop at a bookstore I knew was on the route.
I didn’t even know what I was looking for as I walked through the aisles of books, but He did. Like a magnet, I was drawn to a book called Hinds Feet on High Places (never heard of it before that day, although its been around for decades). It literally jumped off the shelf and into my hands...a gift He had waiting for me.
I arrived at the retreat center at dusk and checked into my room. Unbeknownst to me, there was a silent retreat in progress…which meant I was at a retreat center with dozens of people who literally didn’t speak. At all. Instead of vocalizing ‘hello!’, each wore name tags which stated “Hello, I’m Jim”. To which I would only wave and smile as I passed Jim on the sidewalk.This silent retreat (that I didn’t sign up for) meant I involuntarily didn’t speak either. For three days. No doubt part of the plan…
I unloaded the books from the car and toted them to my room overlooking the smoky peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. I skipped dinner, excited to dive into my new book. I was curious to read what He wanted me to absorb. Surely, after driving 10 hours to a peaceful retreat center, I’d be encouraged and uplifted in my season of sadness. That’s what father’s do, right??
One chapter in, I cried. Ugly cry sort of cried. And I closed the book and fell asleep at 7:30pm.
It's safe to say I cried for 17 of those 36 hours on that mountain. Even in the yoga session where I was beckoned to have ‘happy thoughts’, I had tears were streaming down my face. And they weren’t happy tears. I was just wrecked, absolutely wrecked. And had no one to talk about it with. Did I mention that along with mute people there was no cell reception on said mountain in NC?
I only made it 35 pages into the book before driving the 10 hours home. I couldn’t get off that mountain fast enough.
Quite frankly, I think I spent 3 days ticked off at God. “Seriously, God?!! I’m already broken into pieces and you ask me to read something that breaks me even further?! Where’s my soothing balm for my heart?! Where’s the Psalms of encouragement? The angels dropping out of the skies!? Where's the person putting their arm around me in a spirit of solidarity? Where's the chocolate at this healthy retreat!???!! ” That about summed it up…
In Hannah Hurnard’s allegory Hins Feet on High Places, the main character, Much-Afraid, tells the Shepherd who comes to visit her in her home in the Valley of Humiliation, that she would love to dance on the high places like the sure-footed deer (hind) for which the book is named.
The story records it this way:
“O Shepherd. You said you would make my feet like hinds’ feet and set me upon High Places.” “Well,” he answered, “the only way to develop hinds’ feet is to go by the paths which the hinds use.”
As the story continues, Much-Afraid travels the paths of the hinds, her guides, Pain and Suffering, accompany her through every ragged rock ledge, deep valley and climb to the peak.
Since that Thanksgiving weekend, this book broke me open 100 times over. The most needed gift from God that I really didn’t want…like getting an unassembled bike on your birthday. Who wants a gift that you have to put work in to actually using?! I wanted instant gratification. I wanted nurturing. I wanted to come off that mountain, renewed. Refocused. Less lonely. Less conflicted. Clearer in vision for my future as mama of three boys. Clearer in my vision for myself as a child of God.
It took me 8 months to finish the book. Dear friends, I am a speed reader. I gobble up books in hours. And this little gem? 8 months. 8 months of opening the book with curiosity just to get 2 pages in and declare, “I can’t handle this right now.” Every page was a call for me to examine my life. To let Him in to the deepest wounded areas. To confess. Repent. Accept. Move on. Dream again.
“The Shepherd laughed too. “I love doing preposterous things,” he replied. “Why, I don’t know anything more exhilarating and delightful than turning weakness into strength, and fear into faith, and that which has been marred into perfection. If there is one thing more than mother which I should enjoy doing at this moment it is turning a jellyfish into a mountain goat. That is my special work,” he added with the light of a great joy in his face. “Transforming things —to take Much-Afraid, for instance, and to transform her into—“He broke off and then went on laughingly. “Well, we shall see later on what she finds herself transformed into.”
Its no coincidence that I was asked to read that book just as I was trekking up to the top of a ‘high place’ in the Carolinas. And I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that in the sun room where I read this book each morning, I now have 3 baby fawns living outside the door. Yes, He literally put the focus of the analogy that I’ve been wrestling with, in my backyard where for 3 weeks I have watched them strengthen their wobbly legs and feet. For the first few days they couldn’t stand for more than a couple of moments without collapsing. This morning I watched as they ran lap after lap around the yard, showing off for their mama before feeding time. It was definitely a ‘Look Mom! Look how fast I am now!’ moment.
This week I turned 40. In many ways I feel like those newborn fawn. My legs still weak and wobbly. My footing unsure. I am still Much Afraid. Much afraid of the unknown. Much afraid of leaving my past behind. Much afraid of saying final goodbyes to love lost. Much afraid of failure again. Much afraid of repeating mistakes. Much afraid of my children suffering long-term affects of the stress they’ve experienced. Much afraid to love again.
But there are a few moments where my legs feel stronger and I look at God with a ‘Hey! Look at me, Papa!! Getting stronger, right?!’ And, oh how I want to become stronger again.
“The High Places,” answered the Shepherd, “are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in the gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again. You will be able to mount to the High Places swifter than eagles, for it is only up on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive the power to pour themselves down in an utter abandonment of self-giving.”
In my journal on the morning I left North Carolina, I wrote this:
On top of a mountain I came to encounter God more deeply. I’m not sure I have – but on my last day here, I leave with this.
In a yoga session, the instructor, a small, weathered man, had us open our knees to the side and flap them. ‘like wings of a butterfly”. He went on to describe the butterfly – a creature of happiness and beauty – one who isn’t concerned about daily worries and struggles, but instead, flutters by – gently touching objects along the way – sprinkling them with happiness and beauty.
I began to cry. I was so touched by this imagery and wanted so much for my life to be that free and unburdened by hurt and sadness.
I leave today, not healed, as I wanted to be. But, maybe more aware than ever of the journey it takes to get to the high places with my Father.
In my 40th year, I have a list of resolves. Some are statements. Some are scripture. Some are declarations over my future. Over my children. Over my past. Over His plan for me. I share them, because maybe you are in a place like me….a ridiculously long, dark season of the soul. You’ve bargained with God. Pleaded. Asked in a dozen different ways for release. For relief. From grief, anxiety, gripping fear of the unknown, deep sadness and longing. From shame, regret, self-loathing, and insecurity. From the loss of a dream. A disappointment that you feel you can’t recover from. Whatever the pressing-in-on-all-sides looks like at the time, it’s ultimately a gut-wrenching cry out to God for help. In those moments, He whispers. Because He is for us. We must remember that -- even when the soothing balm doesn't get rubbed into to our wounds right when we decide it should be.
As I journeyed through this book, through quiet times with Him in prayer and reading, or conversations with someone, or an online sermon or podcast driving in my car…my cry for help would come in these nuggets of truth that I’d write down in my journal. They are below…
40 Declarations Over My Life
Gods grace is enough. Its all I need. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
In quietness and trust is my strength (Isaiah 30:15)
I ask God to breathe on Scriptures that have an action of “NOW” in my life. I will ask Him to breathe on that which my heart and His heart ache for me now.
I believe that I am worthy of a fresh start. (Psalm 32:1-7)
God delights in me! (Zephaniah 3:17)
He is my Guide. Now and always. (Psalm 48:14)
I have affection for others. Exuberance about life. Compassion. Loyalty. I direct my energies wisely. I have serenity. (Galatians 5:22-23)
I am protected and safe. (Psalm 37:39-40)
When I settle for my present reality, I silence my God-given ability to change it. I'm not settling!
Gods Word defines my life.
My life isn’t small. So, I will stop living it in a small way. I live openly and expansively. (2 Corinthians 6:11-13)
I ask for help. (Proverbs 20:18)
I concentrate on doing my every day tasks with an awareness of Gods presence.
The best thing I can do, even in days of sadness, is to get on with living a full life! (Romans 8:12-14)
I don't give away energy and time to futile things
I seek slivers of truth for today and fill the gaps of my unknown with trust.
I walk into situations looking for ways to bless others, not empty and dependent on others to bless me.
I keep my arms open and outstretched, ready to live the fullest life (Jude 20-21)
I don't reduce God’s ability to move in my life and those of my children.
I don't label myself as ‘disqualified’ or ‘unworthy’.
I let past rejection experiences work FOR me instead of AGAINST me by allowing them to help me sense the possible pain in others and help move them forward.
I don't have unhealthy dependency on others
My face will never be covered with shame (Ps. 34:5)
Suffering and pain is not something I need protected from. I live and love through it.
God is as loving as I’ll let him be. He is as powerful as I’ll let him be.
I know the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace (Luke 1:79)
My boys have uncluttered and focused hearts so that they can live fully (1 Chron. 29:18)
God is restoring everything I’ve lost. He is picking up the pieces. (Deuteronomy 30)
I continually embrace childlike wonder. I run, play, laugh! (Psalm 63)
I find gratitude, no matter what happens (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
I manage my emotions and feelings so that consistency runs through my day (Heb 13:8)
I expect love, love and more love in my life (Jeremiah 31:3)
I will do whatever I have to do to keep moving forward - (Martin Luther King)
I react to circumstances with love and forgiveness. That is ultimate transformation.
I don't make decisions in moments of anxiety or fear
My life is an ascent into excellence, not a decline into dullness
I am constantly renewed and made new (Revelation 21:3-5)
I am continually growing in grace for myself and others (2 Peter 2:18)
My creative, authentic expression will no longer be overshadowed by anxiety, fear, and grief
It is in Christ that I find out who I am and what I am living for (Ephesians 1:11)