In the woods of Du Bois, Pennsylvania, I encountered God in a way I’ve never encountered Him before.
Leaves were changing and the air was becoming cooler. It was fall 2013, and I had been given the gift of time and money from my husband to leave home from October 24-29, to go through an intense personal spiritual journey with four other women from my home church, and get away to a secluded place to spend time with God. We studied, cried, laughed, studied some more, answered deep questions, studied more and took personal time. In between, we drank coffee, shared personal stories, cooked for each other, sat around in our pajamas, and gave each other personal space.
On Sunday morning, October 27, in lieu of church, our leader requested that we go to a place on the grounds of Treasure Lake that could allow us to have our quiet time with God, and to ask some deep questions our hearts had, because she was sure that He would answer them for us. I had been on retreats before, so my personal “go-to” was my Bible and a journal in hand, but this time, I felt like I just wanted music. I decided on a walk. To where, I had no idea, but I knew I had an hour and a half to kill for my own personal “church”, so I figured I would just start walking and end up wherever the road took me.
Our leader took her earbuds and music, and headed left from our front door. Another woman took her journal and went in another direction. I put on my tennis shoes, coat and grabbed my iPod touch. I checked my phone for the time, and headed out of the cabin.
Starting my journey, I prayed, “Lord, I want to experience you. I love being outside, and I want to see you in a new way. Thank you for this time with you this morning.”
Going left, the road wound to the left, then right, then down, and I thought, “This will be interesting to just follow the road.”
I hit Play on my “Power in the Blood” playlist and then selected Shuffle.
Music filled my ears, and I tuned out the cold, brisk air that was hitting my face, and started walking. I followed the curvy road for about five minutes, listening to Chris Tomlin, and then out of the corner of my eye, I saw something to the left of me. I had passed a dumpster which was located in the back of one of the cabins, and when I had passed it, there was nothing there. But when I turned back to see what my peripheral vision had caught, I saw the back part of a deer. It had its nose to the grass and after sniffing slightly, it started to move forward, on the opposite side of the building I was on.
My interest was piqued. I grabbed my phone from my pocket and made sure all sounds were off, then turned the camera on.
So I began to modify my journey and I walked back around the building, careful to walk slowly. The grass still had dew from the morning, and it had covered my tennis shoes already. I wanted to be quiet, as not to startle the deer, and I wanted to know where the deer was going.
He led me down a path that was not a path. It was the center of the grass, in between the townhomes located on the property and he didn’t go in a straight line either. I still listened to my praise music, but I had the volume low in my ears in case something scared the deer and I would have to reroute. I followed slowly and tried not to step hard. I was about twenty feet behind him. And the whole time, I kept praying, “This is so cool, Lord, I wonder where he’s going…”
When we reached the bottom of the hill, the deer started to walk left a bit, and I must have made a noise in the grass.
He stopped and looked back directly at me. I held my breath, and didn’t move. This shot was taken from my mid-abdomen and I was able to catch him looking directly at me, without having him get startled. After about a full minute, he began his journey to the woods again.
Another silent prayer: “Lord, is this you? You knew that I would follow a deer, because I love your animals. And you know I am curious. Did you send him for me? Is he taking me someplace special?”
Silence. And stillness.
About this time, I was about twenty-five feet away from him, and walking even slower as the grass was super wet. I didn’t want him to catch me, but I stayed behind him. He was walking to the entrance of a wooded area. The deer made it to the entrance and then it appeared that he went downward.
I quickened my steps, checked my watch (I had been following him for a half hour already, and the townhomes were no longer in sight), and continued forward to the entrance. Stepping over the log that was laying on the ground at the entrance, I scanned left and right. The deer was not to be seen. I tried to comprehend what I could remember. When he was at the entrance, it looked as though he went over the log and down, but stepping over the log, the height of the ground did not change. Where did he go? The deer had completely disappeared.
“Lord, you led me here, didn’t you?”
“Wow, what is this place?”
Stepping into the wooded area, the bright orange, yellow and brown leaves were still clinging to the trees that canopied the entire area. I took a few pictures with my phone, and then began walking. The area I was in, was surrounded by trees, hills, and ledges, and they were covered with fallen leaves like a beautiful fall carpet. It was a sanctuary. There was a rock seat that I sat on, and prayed.
I thanked God for the time to get away, relax and have my perspective changed about the women who had come. We didn’t previously know each other very well, and had only had small encounters with each other at church and in small group studies on Wednesday evenings.
Over the course of our time together during that retreat, we admitted our fear at coming to an unknown place and spending so much time with people we didn’t know, and God changed all of that. I thanked Him for the time to be still, to see the deer, and to be led by it.
He told me to explore, so I did. I climbed some of the hills, took pictures, climbed down and walked further into the woods, sat and took pictures, and then at one point, after I said again that I wanted to experience Him, the following happened.
I was walking forward down a small path inside of the wooded area, and I heard in my spirit, “Get low”, so as I was standing, I bent my knees. He said, “Lower”, so I bent my knees even lower.
Then, the previously still, soundless wooded area seemed to come to life.
To the right of me, I heard wind starting, and I turned my head, keeping my knees bent as requested. I saw leaves dance on the trees with the wind’s movement, and slowly they cascaded to the left of me. I felt the rush of wind go over me, and I closed my eyes as I felt the air pass. And then the leaves continued to dance. It was like a heavenly hug.
I will never forget that.
The feeling of the wind passing over me, the sound of the wind, the movement of color. And then as my eyes watched the leaves to the left of me, where the wind seemed to stop, a deer began walking. How long he had been there, I had no idea. He looked smaller than the one God had used to lure me to the sanctuary.
So, I stood, holding my breath again, and this time, the deer passed five feet in front of me, from the left to the right. He didn’t stop to smell me, or get startled, he just slowly walked. I have no idea how he didn’t sense me.
I was in awe, and wanted to shout from the treetops, but didn’t want to lose this precious moment.
The study over the course of the retreat that we had been working on, is called Captivating by Stasi Eldredge. In her book, she explains that God has placed desires in our hearts as women: to be seen as beautiful, to have an irreplaceable role, and to be romanced. These core desires are because God Himself has these desires, and since we are created in His image, we have these desires.
Praying while in the sanctuary, I learned that God is beautiful. The leaves, the hills, the deer, the brook, the trails, the unbeaten paths, all of it is from Him. We assume beauty is something of femininity, but it is of God. Beauty is not just women. It is the desire to produce something that can be delighted in, and appreciated. Even when men work on cars or airplanes, they name them female names, because the objects are delighted in and appreciated. Beauty is something we are all capable of producing.
God knows that I love adventures. As a child, I never hesitated to explore the woods, ride my bike to new paths, and get away from the city streets. I loved the woods, nature and quiet. There was an area at the end of my street that would run behind some homes. And at the end of it was a creek with trees all around. I dubbed it, “My Walden” and would write and journal there as a teenager. That has never left. me. And He has used that desire within me to continue to go on adventures, with my husband in our marriage, in our faith, in our lives.
And the gift from the Sunday morning of my retreat was that God romances us. Think of the many times in a fairy tale that a woman waits for someone to romance her, to be seen from across the room and make eye contact. Many women want that feeling of being desired.
God drew me toward Him. He answered my prayer for an encounter, to see Him in a new way.
He knew I would follow an animal. And to follow that deer to the entrance of the place that God wanted to have “church” with me that morning was solely His doing. He took me to a place that had a tree seat (not man made) and I was able to sit, listen to my music in there, be quiet, explore the many areas within the wooded area, and then to witness another deer pass directly in front of me.
I would never have been able to see that part of Him, had I not stepped away from the city, my crazy schedule, or my life. I needed to get away, have a new perspective of Him, and He was willing to meet me in that place. He wanted me to see how much He loves me, that He knows color excites me, and that He knew what it would take to get me to a place where He could romance my heart, and reassure me that He is real and loving, good and true, and aching to step into the empty places in our hearts that other desires have left bankrupt.
He desires that for all of us. He wants to meet us in the places of our hearts that are so empty and alone. He wants to heal the wounds that have left scars, and drained us emotionally, and tested our faith in Him. But He wants us to take the first step. It has to be because we desire to let the great Healer do the work. He is our Jehovah-Rapha, “the God who heals”.
He won’t force us to do anything we don’t want to, because He has given all of us the ability to make our own choices. But He will call you again and again and again and again, because He has a relentless pursuit for your heart. The love that He has is incomparable to anything humans provide for each other. We get just a small taste of the romancing that is offered to us by our King. Human love is beautiful and adventurous, and it is because of our Father that we love and desire those things. But the ultimate healing of our humanity is through what God did through the work of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection to make sure we know it.
I pray that all of you are able to have an encounter with Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a hilltop in Pennsylvania, with no other distractions (although I highly recommend shutting off the smartphone with notifications to hear Him more clearly). It needs to be a sincere question to our Heavenly Father. “May I encounter you? May I see you?” He will gladly answer yes.