Within the first few steps out the back door of the inn, nature had my full attention. It was a stunningly gorgeous day. The sun was shining high above the forest floor, billowing, stark white clouds playfully breaking up the richest shade of sky blue. The remnants of the spectacular fall colors fell like giant snowflakes. My feet rustled the sea of leaves beneath them until I reached the gravel path and the sound of crunch took over. I saw robins searching for food and squirrels playfully scampering from tree to tree. The crisp, cool air brought all my senses to life and made me glad I had packed my winter coat for this trip to North Carolina.
No spiritual retreat would be complete without a hike in these woods. Each path has been carefully prepared, cared for, manicured, and prayed over for sojourners like me. Bible verses embossed on brass plaques dot the path every 100 feet or so, reminders of Who created the beauty you’re surrounded by and the One who walks the path with you.
I was headed down to the chapel at the bottom of the hill but there was no real agenda, just spending time with Him, enjoying the beauty of this beautiful place of rest He had brought me to, and listening. Listening for what He would say to me, wanting big answers to big questions and waiting expectantly to hear them. Amidst the big questions there were also a few little ones. Like I asked that I might be able to see some deer on our walk. I was hoping for two, but my request wasn’t very specific. I’d settle for whatever He wanted to show me but I was really hoping for a couple of deer off in the distance.
As I made my way through the woods I was carefully attentive to any noise I heard, watching, waiting expectantly for those deer perhaps. Our conversation continued. I’d stop at various Bible verse markers, reflect on the verse and comment to Him what each meant to me. I stopped several times at the stream that ran alongside the path. There is something so peaceful about the sound of running water. And I kept looking for those deer.
Songs rang through my mind amidst my conversation with Him. “It is well with my soul” was deafeningly loud inside my head. It’s a wonder He could even hear my prayers over the massive choir echoing in my soul.
I could see the trail coming to an end at the main driveway for the chapel. There was a park bench at the end of the trail and I sensed the Lord asking me to sit for a few minutes. I gently reminded Him of my request to see deer. I sat on the bench taking in all the sights and sounds of this beautiful day. I eagerly kept my eyes peeled for deer or anything moving. All I could see where a bunch of black crows across the road in a small pasture. Crows. I have to admit the thought ran through my head, “Crows? Really? I can see those every day at home.” But still I waited, critical of myself for the sarcastic comments running through my mind. Eventually I left my place on the bench and headed off to the chapel. There were no deer in sight.
I took my time walking through the beautiful chapel. I took some pictures both inside and out. I ran into one of my fellow sojourners and asked her about her hike, which path she had taken, and how strenuous it was. After more than an hour or so at the bottom of the hill I headed back. Once again on the trail back to my inn I resumed my conversation with the Lord. I continued to look for deer but a little less enthusiastically. I felt like the window had passed. Sitting on that bench felt like that was going to be the answer to my request, but it wasn’t. There were no deer there.
I continued my journey upward. Although an easy trail it was a bit more strenuous than it was on the way down. I took my time, stopping frequently. My thoughts were now in many directions. What was next? How would I spend my afternoon? What was on the menu for lunch? And occasionally I would return to those big questions I was asking for answers to. Finally I reached the last trail sign post. My inn was just a quarter mile away. Although I couldn’t see it through the forest I could sense its imposing structure looming over me. I was close. The hike was essentially over.
I had a fleeting thought about the deer. I said to the Lord, “Well, Lord, I know I asked to see deer and I didn’t see any…” And before I could finish my thought, there they were – two deer several yards ahead of me. I couldn’t believe it! I had practically given up and there they were right in front of me, exactly as I had hoped.
I watched them for several minutes. The picked a few morsels of green from the forest floor and slowly made their way over to the stream. As they moved I continued up the trail, moving slowly so as not to scare them. I made my way to where there was a bend in the trail. It was as close as I could get to them from the trail and it was amazing. I kept my eyes on them and just kept watching. They were still several yards from me but I was mesmerized and so, so grateful.
Then something suddenly got my attention. There, no more than five feet away from me was another beautiful doe. I don’t know how I missed her! She stood next to me for a moment, then ate a few leaves. She looked up at me as if just to say, “Hi,” then took a few more bites. All I could say to her in a hushed whisper was, “You’re so beautiful!” In a few moments she followed the path of her two friends and made her way towards the stream. I watched as she crossed in front of me. She turned again to look at me, as if to say this time, “See you later” and continued her journey.
Just as I turned to start my own journey back to the inn, there was a fourth doe! She was just 10 feet from me. She too followed the same path as the others and I watched in utter glee. I was beside myself! As they made their way up and over the stream I waited until they ascended the hill opposite me. With a smile on my face I climbed those last couple hundred yards to the inn, absolutely filled to overflowing with what God had shown me.
There are so many lessons from this experience, lessons I’m sure the Lord will continue to show me and remind me of as I make my way in this life. But the words that immediately came to my mind after seeing these four deer were, “exceedingly, abundantly more.” Those words come from Ephesians 3 where Paul is sharing his prayer for the members of the church of Ephesus. He says,
“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:14-21
The context of this prayer is Paul is sharing with these fellow believers in Ephesus the truth about the gospel. He tells them the good news that salvation is not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles too! He was encouraging this church, which was primarily made up of non-Jewish members, that they were a part of the same family he was. Together they made up the Body of Christ. They were all brothers and sisters in the faith.
His prayer for them is so profound. In light of this great news, he wanted them to know the depth of God’s love for them. They weren’t to think of themselves as second class citizens. They weren’t an afterthought in God’s plan for salvation. They were as much a part of God’s plan as anyone ever was and Paul’s desire was that they know that truth in the very core of their being. That they would know God’s love for them so well they would be filled to overflowing. And the One who would allow them to know the depth of that love for them was none other than the Holy Spirit of God who does exceedingly, abundantly more than we can ever ask or think.
It was no coincidence that those three words “exceedingly, abundantly more” were the three words that ran through my head after my deer encounter. When I looked up the context of those words God gently reminded me that one of my big questions of Him for years has been that He would help me understand the depth of His love for me. Here was just one simple example of that tremendous love and I had almost given up on it before I even received it. There were several things He showed me.
First, I believe He did intend for me to sit on that bench at the end of the path but it wasn’t in order for me to see the deer then. He knew how long I would be at the chapel and how many breaks I would take on the walk back up the hill. He knew precisely when those deer were going to cross my path and He knew how long I would sit and wait. The gift He had for me was never intended for those moments on the bench as I had thought. The gift came more than an hour later and many, many steps away. But how often do we expect something immediately from Him? “I was obedient, Lord, now where’s my prize?” What!? In our instant-gratification culture, have we reduced our relationship with Him to that of a lab rat pressing a bar for a morsel of food? No! This is a real relationship we are to have with Him. One that is based on trust. He knows our circumstance. He knows every step on our path and His timing is perfect.
Second, the quality of His gifts of love are beyond what we can ever fathom. I was hoping for two deer at a distance. I would “settle for” whatever God wanted to give me. What does that say? I was not expecting much. Although I was eagerly anticipating His answer constantly on the look out for deer, I really wasn’t expecting much from Him. He gave me not two deer, but four deer. And the first two were what I was expecting… at a distance. Then He showed me what He could really do! Two more within a few feet of me, one so close I could have almost touched her. I just sensed He was saying, “Those first two are what you asked for. These two are what I had for you!” How often do I “settle,” discounting what He may give me before He even has a chance to bless me?
Third, was just the reminder that this is all about His love. It was never really about the deer. That was a beautiful, breathtaking, memorable gift of God’s great love, but the true gift is His love itself! Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians was that they would know that love so deeply and be filled to overflowing by it. It is love so deep and so powerful that it is meant to change us forever – to transform us! Isn’t it ironic that the letter to the Ephesian church recorded in the book of Revelation written about 36 years later says, “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4) Oh, we can’t let that love fade from our memories. We can’t let the power of His love lose its power. We need to be reminded of the very presence of the Holy Spirit within us. God’s Spirit is inside of us. His love delivered in whole to us, to fill us up, to overflow from us and spill into the lives of those who don’t know Him. How do we ever forsake that kind of love? It is exceedingly abundantly more than we could ever ask or think.
Father, I thank you for the beautiful gift you gave me of experiencing those four deer on that hike. Even more so, I thank you for the lessons you taught me from that experience. You are a God who is exceedingly and abundantly more than I give you credit for. Thank you for your grace and for your mercy. May I trust you with not only my big questions but my small ones and may I learn to wait with expectancy of your perfect timing and your good gifts. May I never underestimate you or your goodness. And may I never grow cold towards the great love with which I am filled. I love you, Lord! May your love in me flow into the lives of those around me. Thank you for your many gifts and for your Spirit who lives inside of me. In your son’s name I pray, amen.