The Secret Garden

I headed out the door right before six, so eager to revisit what had been my Secret Garden. It had been nine years since I had frequented this trail, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. A friend of mine had found it, and she and I would wake up bright and early and hike it in solitude. I couldn’t wait to do it again. Thinking back, I remembered reaching the top and just basking in the breathtaking views and the awesomeness of God. We would hit it right about dawn, and the sun peeking over the mountains was a sight to be seen.

I left my purse in the car and grabbed my keys and my phone. I knew I would want pictures. (I may have also been a little concerned that I would lose my way.) It had been almost a decade, after all. The trail was grown up, which wasn’t a total surprise to me. It had been grown up when we first discovered it, as well. But this time, I had to dig through deep foliage, meander around weeds and spider webs, and avoid chiggers and my worst nightmare, poison ivy. If it hadn’t been already 80 degrees at 6 a.m., I would have worn jogging pants. I then remembered why hiking this in the fall was a good idea.

I came to a fork in the path and hesitated. I tried to see in my mind’s eye which way we had followed. I just prayed that I wouldn’t get lost and headed to the right. It kept circling up and up the mountain, or what surely felt like a mountain. I was out of breath and yet exhilaration was flowing through my veins. I couldn’t believe I was finally able to revisit the location that held such sweet and amazing memories for me. I knew the top would not disappoint.

As I came out into a clearing, I looked around in all directions. There was surely a path I was overlooking. This couldn’t be the top. There were no views. I walked to the edge of all the sides, hoping to glimpse the city below. I was befuddled. This could not be the place that I have dreamed about for nine years. Maybe I had taken a wrong turn.

And yet, there was no other place to go higher. This was it. I had expectations of being so wrapped up in God’s creation and love and spending a few minutes up there in prayer and meditation. I knew I would be out of range for my Bible app to work, but I had allowed myself some time to just soak in His beauty.

As it was, I snapped a few pictures (of what, I wasn’t sure) and headed back down the trail, confused, disappointed, and sad. I kept my eyes peeled, not only trying not to get lost, but hoping that maybe I would see something on the way down that would right my confused memories.

I realized something that day. My position in life had affected the view at the top. That previous year had been a tough one. I had been rejected and betrayed that year at college by some dear friends of mine. I had spent the majority of my last semester in the vending room, crying out to Jesus and trying to find my identity and worth again. I had gone to camp as a counselor that summer, hoping to find meaning and value there, hoping to find healing from my pain and invest in new people. In fact, one of the friends who had caused me hurt would also be there, but I had fresh hope that we could reconnect in the absence of some other influences. But, as it turned out, she found another friend who was funnier, lovelier, and more attractive than I, and so had begun a heartbreaking summer of realizing that I would never be enough. I had graduated from college only to find myself back at home, with no husband, no friends, and what seemed like no future.

I had always struggled with food, but four years at college had magnified this. I often skipped the hefty dinner lines on Sunday night after church to eat Ramen in my room and study. I hated Sundays. I knew I was missing out on the grilled chicken sandwiches with cheese, and Ramen was no substitute. The real issue was that someone rarely invited me to go with them, and I didn’t want to eat alone. At camp, I had found my weight issues come to a peak as I faced anew the rejection and sadness that comes from dashed hopes. I wallowed in moon pie sundaes and Bosco sticks that summer, hoping to mask the pain I felt. Moving back home didn’t help this at all. It suddenly seemed like food was my best friend, and the cure to all the sorrow I felt for what was my life.

But this trail represented self-discipline. During this time, I also went through a Bible study called A Call to Die, and had chosen to give up dinner throughout the week in order to spend time in God’s Word. This turned out to be such a sweet time for me, but something I never thought I could do. Willingly, of course. I used to pine for the people who had lives and friends to go to dinner with. But now, I was perfectly content to spend time with my best Friend and eat a pack of crackers. My stomach growled a whole lot, but I was more spiritually full than I’d ever been. Between that sacrifice of supper and the sacrifice of sleep to hike this trail in the mornings, I felt renewed like I never had before. Maybe there was hope that I could knock this food issue out of the park once and for all.

This trail represented new friendships. I had decided to stop seeking the popular crowd, and instead seek the crowd who wanted to go deeper with Christ. They weren’t the friends that I had expected to hang out with in that season of life. They were new friends that God knew I needed to lead me back to the place I needed to be with Him.

This trail represented severing my worth from people and anchoring my identity in Christ. I had finally emerged from hiding and decided to make my own path. My life wasn’t what I expected, but moping about it wasn’t going to make anything better. I was tired of caring what other people thought of me. I was tired of letting others dictate my life. I was exhausted from my identity being attached to other people. It was a roller coaster of emotions, being whipped every which way as I attempted to prove my worth. I was done with that way of life.

This trail represented solitude. Drowning out the noises of the world in order to focus squarely on Jesus. To leave those things below and go higher with Him.

So the views that I thought this mountain top had? They were the views, not of sunrises and lush meadows, of countryside cottages and Amish farmlands, but of accomplishment, discipline, and new spiritual heights with Christ. They were the views of the homeland, heaven, where I would be able to see nothing but my Lord. It was on the mountain top where I was able to carry up my burdens and walk down without them. It was a feeling of being made into the image of God, not only as my physical body changed, but as my spiritual heart changed. It was the decision to stop trying to manipulate and shuffle around the pain but to rest in Him. IMG_7850

I realized on the way down that the way I remembered it was certainly very different that reality. But actually? It was entirely accurate. It was a beautiful piece of heaven-on-earth.

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Lessons from a Zookeeper

My daughter and I rounded the corner into the shade. It was a perfect day for the zoo… a beautiful 72 degrees in August, with a gorgeous breeze that was almost a bit chilly. We had already seen camels, albino kangaroos, flamingos, and we were headed to the giraffes. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a creature with lots of hair walking around the cages of monkeys, parakeets, and lemurs. An older lady with a stretchy band of keys on her wrist was picking up fallen tree limbs and hosing off the cages from the outside. I noticed that she wasn’t smiling. The parakeet was making loud noises and the monkeys were swinging like acrobats around their cage. The giraffes were stretching their necks to see what all the raucous was about. Eden was enthralled with the monkeys, their beards and their chatter. I was admiring their upper arm strength, wondering how many reps I would have to do to be able to swing around like that.

 

I noticed that the zookeeper wasn’t smiling. How odd, I thought. She had the opportunity to be just feet away from some of the most amazing animals, and it didn’t appear that she even noticed them. Perhaps she was having a bad day, or had a lot on her mind. But I began thinking of what amazing privileges I take advantage of in my own life. That I have a job and can significantly contribute to my family’s needs while staying at home with my daughter this summer? That I’m surrounded by Cheerios and feel like a human Hoover and forget that I have a precious toddler at home that God has given me to take care of? That I get wrapped up in the busyness of life and fail to take notice of the Presence of Jesus? How often do I read His Word out of duty, instead of relishing His love for me? I wonder how often I walk through this life, ungrateful for my one-and-only job description on this earth: to love and know Jesus more. How have I gotten over this privilege??

 

A crowd assembled, watching the hyperactive animals respond to the water and the up-close-and-personal human. The lady didn’t speak to the animals. She didn’t make eye contact with them as she targeted the poop on the cage floor and aimed her hose at it. How often am I, too, focused on the crap in my own life… the failures, the opportunities missed, the inconvenient interruptions, the sticky countertops…that I forget to notice the people around me that I love? Matt Chandler speaks of husbands and wives who bring their phones to bed at night, frustrated with life, creeping on old classmates’ present-day careers and scrolling through social media, seemingly without thought to their beloved lying in bed next to them. This is so often me.

 

The lady filled up the water basin and added new food, but I noticed that the monkeys were still picking at the old banana peels that she was trying to hose away. How ridiculous, I thought to myself. Do they not see the amazing treasure trove of fresh fruit right over there? How silly to desire the leftover peels. But how often am I content with the leftovers? How often do I scrounge around for food that is half-eaten, picked at, and non-sustaining? Do I really think this is the best there is? I settle for what Billy Graham says about God, what that devotional tells me God is like, what that podcast tells me the Bible says. But do I feast on the riches of God’s Word myself? Or do I simply roam around the cages of the men and women of God who have sat at Jesus’ feet for years, and pick up bits and pieces of what they’ve learned and take what they say as truth? Hearing from pastors and wise leaders is an important privilege, but it should never take the place of seeking God for myself. When I do this, I am missing out on so much. I am trading communion with Christ for allowing someone else to attend the feast and tell me what it tastes like. I wonder how often I am content with the crumbs instead of dining on steak at the Master’s table.

 

Just as we decided to go on our way, I heard the zookeeper say something to the monkey. I expected something like: Hello there, handsome! Nice moves! This sure is a pretty day for swinging! But instead, I heard, “Are you going to help me?” Ouch. Does Jesus feel this way? How many times have been blinded to His beauty because I am only there to ask Him for help? How often am I unable to see the miracle of God-in-flesh, the God Who gave up all of His heavenly glory, and became the most vulnerable of all humans- a baby. Instead of bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh, I come empty-handed, expecting to leave with my arms full.

 

As I pushed the stroller towards the zebras, I prayed that I would gain a renewed sense of my privilege as a daughter of Christ. I asked the Lord to make me more aware of His Presence, and to never let it get stale. I prayed to be like the Psalmist who begged to be a doorkeeper in God’s house than to be separated from Him (Psalm 84:10.)  His majesty and glory is paralleled to none.

 

Jesus, may I never get over it!