Starting a little series (for lack of a better term) about the wisdom I’ve been provided through time spent in the wilderness. God has made metaphors of certain experiences on the trail, camping, and walking among trees and mountains which have created insightful parallels for life at home. These posts are to share those illustrations as I felt they were revealed to me – to “pay it forward” so to speak. I write them not because I think them revelational, but maybe because someone else out there needs these illustrations too. So, perhaps this is for you.
3. shadow – (noun) an area of darkness created when a source of light is blocked; a dark shape created when something moves between the surface and a source of light.
On many Sierran mornings, you rise before the sunlight reaches your camp. The light has kissed the mountain peaks you can see at a distance, but it takes its sweet time bleeding down the granite slopes to get to your campsite. Depending if you slept out the night before (i.e. no tent) or set up a tent, you’ll likely have a dew-dampened sleeping bag or rain fly needs some drying before packing it up. Regardless, you are mostly wanting the light to reach you to get warm, and to feel motivated to get moving.
Often times this need to “get moving” involves a hike that begins with a hill. At one location we went to repeatedly throughout the season, we often began early morning hiking up a hill to get to a lake where we would work in the rest of the day. As we got deeper into fall, and due to the hill’s aspect, this meant that the first little grunt of the day was done entirely in shadow.
If you are prone to being cold like me, this makes the first effort of the day somewhat disquieting. Any amount of time spent in the shadow-land means being trapped in a state of torment brought on by chill. But, when the time comes, you charge at the shadowy slope because you must, and because it is shameful enough to feel like a wuss, and something entirely worse to act like one.
I begin such days trying to keep a quick hiking pace and flexing my gloved-hands at regular intervals in a futile attempt to encourage blood flow to my numb fingertips. And about every fifth step or so, I look upwards to the top of the hill. There the sunlight, golden and inviting, is held captive a the ridgeline. Each time I chance a glance up at it, I will it closer to me with a desperate longing for warmth.
It really isn’t far. However, at the start, while blanketed in the chill of shadow, it feels so far away. Within 10 minutes or less, I’m there. When I top out, shaking the last bit of the shadow away, I can’t help but gasp in awe of the sudden envelopment of warmth. I close my eyes to fully give praise for all that it is. It is impossible to not gaze in wonderment at how everything is painted in gold and amber tones at the time of day, especially after having just emerged from a land in which everything was painted in shadow. The landscape features and topography on either side of the hill aren’t all that different, but the lighting makes them feel two different worlds entirely.
Add about 10 minutes or so onto the trail, now all in sunlight, and I am quickly pealing off my gloves and 2 of the 3 upper layers I just couldn’t bring myself to take off before. Such defenses are entirely unnecessary now, seem foolish to have brought along at all, and it seems impossible that I could have ever been cold a few minutes ago. The warmth is that instantly all-consuming, it has an affect on your memory of all that came before.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
There are cold chapters in life, in which we feel we are walking in the “valley of the shadow of death.” Light, joy, and excitement seem gone from our surroundings. Sometimes there is a cause we can point to for this (a broken relationship, losing a job, death of a loved one), but sometimes there is not. The origin isn’t so important as our present feeling, and we feel cold. The way out of our figurative valley seems a long uphill in darkness. We’re not sure we can get to the top, we’re not sure we have enough in us to get out of our shadows. We’re not sure we shouldn’t just lay back down in our sleeping bag and close our eyes for a while.
But, as in the Psalm above, God gives us just enough comforts to survive the shadowland. God walks with us through all chapters in life, this one included, so that we need not fear the shadows. His presence becomes the gloves to keep our fingertips from freezing. His presence can come in a variety of forms – an encouraging conversation with a friend, a book that speak right to our heart, an old letter that speaks warmth into our thoughts. He shows us there is an way out, with His rod and staff – a trail leading to a ridgeline of sunlight. Maybe our figurative trail comes in the form of a project at work that helps us feel productive, a sense of sorrow so profound that it propels us to writing or creating music, a friend who just won’t leave us alone and hence is leading us out of our shadows without us fully realizing it.
For you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (Ephesians 5:8)
Then, although we thought it impossible at the start, we’ve reached the sunlight and the warmth overwhelming. Life has become something light and joyous again. The shadows are behind us. And when we look at life as it is now, and glance backwards at what it had been in the shade of all that was difficult for us, it seems like two different worlds entirely.
As the verse from Ephesians says, when we emerge from our darkness, we are to “walk as children of Light.” To me, this means that I should give praise where praise is due first and foremost. To stop and truly give thanks that the Lord has brought me back into brilliant Light, just as I can hardly help doing when I reach sunlight on a ridgeline. We need such moments to stop and stand in awe of all that we are blessed with.
I believe it is also important to articulate your journey from shadow to light with others. Part of walking as a “child of Light” is to be honest about how you survive chapters of coldness. You might just be the trail God uses to help someone else out of their “valley of the shadow of death.” Don’t scoff at that, God uses you all the time, more than you can possibly imagine.
When life is easy, when it is warm, it tends to be all consuming, just like the warmth of the sunlight after being in shadow for so long. But I feel it is important to reflect once and a while upon your time in the cold, in order to have eyes to see just how much God provides for you, doesn’t give you more than you can handle. By sharing all that with others, that part of your story, you can help them look up to their ridgeline where they can reach their own sunlight again.
Shadows in the wilderness aren’t all torturous, sometimes they are a sanctuary. Tree shadows are a perfect example of this.
When you are working or hiking all day on a trail, a lot of times that means you are in full sun exposure. Long hours in the sun drains your energy away. Too much exposure can leave us dehydrated, overheated, sun burnt, or just overly-squinted (even with sun glasses, our eyes seem to work harder in the sun).
Tree shadows are a sanctuary for these reasons and more. Even a small patch of shade can be become a welcomed haven for a lunch break or a few seconds respite from hiking in the sun. The coolness found under tree shadows we find to be such a relief we sigh in the glory of it. It sometimes seems that we’ve never felt anything so good as the shade of a tree.
Beyond it providing a shelter from the sun, these patches of shade provided by trees also create a lovely mosaic to a forested landscape – patches of bright with patches of shadow. The shape and size of the patches vary greatly, which creates a quilt of dark and light at angles all around you. And there is also a sort of stained-glass window effect on the landscape with tree shadows – depending on the kind of tree the sunlight is filtering through, the color and intensity of the light and the shade varies as well. As we cool down, and rest there in the art of it all, we’re brought back to the present, and are able to appreciate the small ways art appears in nature – not the least of which is the way tree shadows present themselves on the landscape.
It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge…
Lately, I’ve felt rather sun-drained from all I’m trying to gain discernment and direction on in my life. I’m pelted with good, bright questions in my self interrogations: What do you want to do you with your life? Is living away to do something you think you might like (but also might not) enough reason to be hundreds of miles away from friends and family? Where does writing fit into your life? How much outdoor time is “enough” to be happy in your career? Will going back to school help you get to your goal? What is your goal? What kind of salary will provide you with what you want for a full life? Should money play a role in choice making at all? Should it play a greater role? Are you being frivolous, overly-whimsical, and irresponsible? Is God on board with any of these plans? Are you even inviting God into all this? Are you deaf to what He is telling you? Are you too possessive of your time? Are you too closed? Are you being a coward? Are you letting fear dictate your choices? Are you truly offering your life up to what God wants? Are? Where? Will? How? What?
Sometimes it is just too much.
Each question is like a bright sun ray, shining light to the direction I’m taking, but sometimes light is just too bright. I’m feeling burnt, dehydrated, and I just can’t see in all that light anymore. I need to rest.
Even though I’m a planner, and like answers, like to be able to hold and see the map I’m following for my life, lately I have just been thankful that I can just escape in the Lord’s shade, into the relieving shadow of not knowing but knowing that Someone knows the answer to all my pelting questions. There is a time for being introspective, and to ask yourself questions about the path you are on, but there are also times you just need to rest in the shade, escape from the introspecting light, and just let be, making the most of the present.
For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. (Psalm 63:7)
Resting in the shadow of trees is a time I try to look around the woods and marvel at the beauty of it all, and to “sing for joy” at the art depicted there. And, when resting in the “shadow” of the Lord’s “wings” it is then we should do our best to look around our present, and “sing for joy” at all the blessings found there. If we develop eyes to see our present properly, what a beautiful thing it is – all the friendships, all the memories that have shaped us into who we are, all the interests we have, all the things we want to learn and are learning…it creates a mosaic, a quilt, a stained glass window adding richness to our life.
I feel both intimidated by and drawn to shadows. Especially now where my life feels a confusing series of questions that I don’t have answers to. Some days I feel cold, so confused and blanketed in darkness that I don’t know if I can rally myself to hike on to clarity. But equally, if not more often, I find the shadows a comfort, a respite from trying to know too much about my future or if I’m going the right way. And since shadows are defined by light, I guess I have both with me all the time anyways.