Lost In The Woods

Image of Sandy by E. Mugglin

Image of Sandy by E. Mugglin

It was Easter Sunday, 2005, and I was excited about going to church.  This was going to be my first Easter church service since reclaiming my faith.  I had been raised a Christian, but had stopped practicing my faith just as soon as I went off to college.  I lived for many years thinking that I was smarter than all those “religious” people.  But during the previous year, I had finally awakened to my deep need for faith.  I looked forward to that Easter church service as my personal homecoming.

I was happily anticipating that service as I went about my morning chores.  Unfortunately, my daydreaming caused me to lose my focus when I let the dogs outside to do their business, and I forgot to clip our dog Sandy on her chain. 

Sandy is the escape artist in our family.  She’s a  sweet dog, but she was neglected and allowed to run wild as a puppy.  By the time we took her into our family, she couldn’t be trusted to be outside unless she was on a chain.  A couple of times a year, she’d manage to slip her collar, break her chain, or bolt out the door on us, and then she’d be gone.  She’d get muddy running in the woods, chase after cars on our street, and generally be a nuisance to our neighbor and friends.  Many hours, or even days, later she would return home, dirty, smelly, and completely worn out from her antics.

I realized my error seconds too late.  I rushed out the basement door just in time to catch a glimpse of her orange tail slipping under our fence.  I threw on some  shoes and gave chase.  It was my fault she had gotten loose; I knew I needed to get her back before I could do anything else, even go to church.

After a fairly lengthy chase through our development, setting-off fit of barking by every neighborhood dog in the process, Sandy headed up the hill and into the woods.  By now, I was bound and determined to catch her, so I followed her through the underbrush and into the forest.  At first, my persistence surprised her and I closed within yards of catching her.  But just as I dared to think I might actually succeed, pushing for all I was worth, she seemed to shift into a higher gear and accelerated away from me.  Within a minute, she was completely lost from sight.

I stumbled to a halt, panting for breath and holding a stitch in my side.  We were now deep in the woods, more than a mile from our home.  “Does Sandy even know where we are?” I worried.  “Would she be able to find her way home?”  I desperately tried to follow her by sound, listening for her crashing passage through the forest’s undergrowth, but eventually I lost contact with her completely.  Defeated, I turned to walk home, fearful that I may have caused our dog to be permanently lost.

But within a couple of minutes, I heard some crashing noises off to my left and caught a glimpse of Sandy’s orange-gold coat moving through the trees.  She was thirty yards away and moving in a parallel path to mine.  I sprang forward again with renewed energy, but the going was slower moving uphill, and I lost her again within two minutes’ time.

Again I turned to walk home.  Again Sandy reappeared and ran off when I gave chase.  As I lost sight of her for the third time, I came to a complete halt, bent forward, hands clutching my knees as I panted for breath.  Just as my heart was returning to a reasonable rate, that silly dog came crashing back out of the brush in the direction she had just disappeared.  She stopped twenty-five yards ahead of me, head up, eyes bright, tongue and tail wagging, staring expectantly at me.

Finally it dawned on me: Sandy was lost and didn’t know her way home, but she was more than happy to let me chase her through the woods.  She didn’t know where she was going, but it didn’t matter as long as I was following.

“Forget it dog,” I said, “I’m not chasing you anymore.”

I knew if I walked home, she’d simply follow me and resume her car chasing antics once she was on familiar turf.  So I opted instead to walk to a nearby meadow clearing on the opposite side of the woods, with Sandy tailing behind.  I found an old stump along the fence row and sat down.  Sandy circled me in the tall grass, never coming closer than ten yards, but never losing sight of me either.  There we sat, waiting each other out.

By now, it was too late to go to church.  I had missed yet another Easter service.  We stayed in the meadow like that for quite some time.  Despite my disappointment at missing church, it was quiet and peaceful in that field.  Eventually, I closed my eyes and began to pray.  After a while, my words ran out, and I meditated in silence.

“You treat Me the same way that Sandy is treating you.”

The words were simple and clear in my head, but they weren’t from me.  The Voice that spoke them sounded like mine, but it spoke with an authority and wisdom that I don’t possess.  It was a simple statement of Truth, made without anger or condemnation, a loving insight for my benefit.

And I saw clearly how I had been chasing down rabbit trails all my life.  I was trying to overcome the shame and guilt I felt by being faster and smarter than everyone else.  As a younger man, I had chased down every bluff and dead-end that I crossed.  Now that I had found my faith, I was trying to earn God’s grace through my own efforts, trying to anticipate and lead Him.  It was suddenly clear that all my efforts had been no more effective than Sandy’s were this morning.  I was just as lost as she was.

For the first time, I understood that I could never earn God’s grace and love; my debt was too great.  But I also clearly saw that wasn’t what God wanted from me.  His greatest desire was and is for me to simply accept the grace and love that He freely offers.  He waits patiently for me to stop my circling, draw close to Him, and be still.  Then He can lead where we’re meant to go.

Even now, almost three years later, I continue to gain insight and growth from the lesson I learned in the woods with Sandy that Easter morning.  On numerous occasions, as I’ve prayed, journaled, or simply gone about my daily business, I’ve seen a flash of Sandy and me in the woods.  I take it as a short-hand message from the Holy Spirit: be careful, you’re trying to lead the way again.

More recently, when I was considering reading a book that caught my interest, I prayed for guidance before launching into it.  When I accepted the answer, “No,” and set the book aside, I was treated to a vision of Sandy  sitting quietly by my side under the spreading branches of the trees in our forest.

I share this story not because I feel it makes me special, but because I believe each of us has similar sorts of stories to share, times when we’ve experienced the Spirit in a powerful and personal way.  Spiritual disciplines, such as reading scripture, praying, journaling, etc. are important to practice on a regular basis to put us in a position to experience God’s Spirit in our lives.  However, it’s those individual experiences of God where He does his greatest work in our lives.  He is a personal Creator, He knows our individual needs, and He has a unique plan intimately tailored for each of His sons and daughters.

This is a topic not regularly discussed in polite religious circles, let alone the “real world.”  How about you?  Do you have a story of a close encounter of the spiritual kind that you can share?  What happened, and how has it changed your life since it happened?  I’ve a feeling we’ll be surprised just how many stories there are out there.