Walking by the spirit

by Donna Ahlberg

This sermon was preached at the women’s retreat at Covenant Point Bible Camp in the fall of 2021.

Texts: Mark 10:46-52; Mark 4:35-41

Early in the pandemic, I went to my first silent retreat—I mean there wasn’t much else going on socially, right? I found the experience to be so profound that I participated in another one. My spiritual experience could be summed up by saying that “God speaks in the silence if you listen.” When life quieted down to the point where I could really just shut up and listen, the spiritual lesson became “the Living Word comes alive in the life that happens around you.” God has been showing me through life events that scripture comes alive all the time if we open ourselves to seeing it.

I have over thirty years of a relationship with Covenant Point Bible Camp and I’m an ELCA Lutheran. It started in 1985 when I moved to Iron River from the East Coast of my origin and married Duff, a cattle farmer from the Upper Peninsula. Shortly thereafter, I met Jane Frasier who took me under her wing as a good friend at a time when I knew no one. I really needed her unconditional support. She introduced me to Covenant Point, since her husband Chuck was the camp director. They lived at the camp and raised their family here. I spent many a summer afternoon basking in the sun on this very waterfront, and eventually watched my kids get their feet wet in these waters. Our relationship with camp continued to grow and flourish over the years.

In the 2000s, I signed up for a women’s backpacking program, “Venture Out,” organized by Jane, who took a group of ten of us hiking in the Porcupine Mountains. In the years that followed, I made several more trips to Pictured Rocks with these women. We were usually rambunctious and noisy, but also reflective and serene. We felt the presence of God in nature and our surroundings, amongst us in the devotions and the Word.

The silent retreats were led by Terry Cathcart, a spiritual director and a retired Covenant pastor. The theme of one retreat was “Praying with Jesus’s questions.” The first question we heard about was from Mark 10:46-52 when Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus is blind and a beggar and when he hears Jesus coming, he begins to scream, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People sternly ordered him to shut up and be silent, but Jesus stood still. “Call him here,” he says, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replies that he wants to see again; and immediately he does, because as Jesus tells him, “your faith has made you well.”

It is a challenge to identify our deepest spiritual longings. How would we answer Jesus were he to stand here and ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” Not an easy question to answer but one to wrestle with and ponder. After worship, I met with Terry for spiritual direction as I ruminated over the question. (At spiritual direction you are allowed to talk.) Well, nothing was resolved that evening. Night had fallen when our 45-minute conversation was over, and as we stepped outside the door, Terry flicked off the light. And there we

stood in total pitch darkness. Unable to see, unable to move until our eyes could adjust. I looked up between the trees, I could see no stars. We kept talking about orientation in the dark and how to return to camp.

I stepped forward and headed east, as I listened to and felt the crunch of fallen leaves on the crushed gravel under my feet. “Come this way! I’ve been this way before.” Pausing between two tree branches that are adjacent to the path, I stepped tenuously down a grassy slope. I heard Terry laughing softly.

But then, whoa! What’s that noise? The brush of human legs shuffling in nylon shorts to my left. I finally detected motion with my eyes, and blurted out softly, “Do you have a flashlight? We can’t see.” The man, who had come from the direction of the woods across the road, responded, “I can’t talk,” and continued to move away from us. I persisted. “But, we can’t see. Like Bartimaeus.” Then, from a position ahead of us, I heard him say, “it’s straight ahead; just keep walking toward the light.” He disappeared into his cabin. As the path became more illuminated by the lights from the building, we retreated back into silence.

“What do you want me to do for you?” asks Jesus. “I want to see again,” says Bartimaeus. As the answer would seem obvious, Jesus’s question appears almost comical. Levity in the midst of seriousness. What is your deepest longing? Do you even know?

I have felt disappointed in my life with the failure of good communication—which I would classify as communication that conveys a profound depth of love in it—and in fallen relationships in my family of origin. Terry had remarked you can’t repair something if both aren’t working on it. Geographical distance has a way of putting people from the same family in different terroir, so to speak. Terroir is a French term that refers to the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced. We grow roots and get fertilized in different soil, nourished by different minerals, different loam. We taste different. Perhaps, we complement the flavor of those around us in the vineyard.

Last summer, some adventurers among us couldn’t wait and decided to venture out on our own, back to Pictured Rocks. On the morning of the day we departed for Munising, there were weather alerts, gale warnings, for Lake Superior in that area. Winds out of the south, sweeping in a direction across the national lakeshore out over the waters of Lake Superior.

On the first day of our four-day hike, we camped at Trapper’s Lake which is inland, located within a half-mile from the waters of Lake Superior. There were nine of us sleeping inside six tents. Gales did indeed howl throughout the night. A one-minute gush of wind would roar through the treetops, tall trees bending to an invisible force, the rustle of leaves to the tune of creaking limbs and branches, the gale exhaling her breath; then a 30-second interlude, an inhale, if you will, before it all began again. This went on for hours, and I was afraid a tree limb could fall on one of our tents. Afraid of harm. Afraid of my own death.

Sometime in the morning, I awoke to realize all was calm. Somehow, I had fallen asleep in spite of it all. As we gathered for breakfast and packed up camp for the day’s hike, someone remarked about the generator she had heard running in the night. Or was it a truck? But, we were in the wilderness. There were no roads within miles of our camp. Sometime shortly thereafter, we heard a plane fly overhead, the hum of propellers. Beneath the leafy treetops, we heard it before we saw it. As we hit the main trail on our westward journey, we eventually met the cliff that overlooked the lake. The plane was persistent in its efforts, circling around the calm waters before turning back and circling around again. I snapped a picture. At Beaver Creek, we saw a Coast Guard helicopter scouring the shoreline. It was a search and rescue. We stopped and prayed for those in peril. We were soon to learn, later that day, that two kayakers had died that night. Gale winds had generated three to seven-foot waves on the lake. The search and rescue had become a recovery, spanning 516 square miles of water.

At the silent retreat a week later, Jesus asked us a new question, “Why are you afraid?” based on a reading from Mark 4, about Jesus calming the storm. The passage is read aloud slowly and four times in a practice called Lectio Divina. We are to listen for whatever God is calling us to hear. Afterward, I met with another Spiritual Director, a faith-filled woman named Marcy. I came to see her about the reading which I found disturbing. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks those in the boat, “Have you no faith?”

I tell her about the drowning of the two kayakers. This reading I think is about bridging life with death, I tell her. Jesus begins, “Let us go

across to the other side.” This is not a story about rescue. It’s a story about death. It’s a story about meeting death on the other side. It’s a story about recovery. I start crying and the tears come easily for the two who perished, but the tears come easily for my own mortal self as well. Certainly, those two people had faith as they bobbled in absolute fear on an unforgiving horizon. Where was Jesus for them? Was he in the boat?

There is a question, Marcy says, that we don’t and will never have an answer to: How does God judge our faithfulness? Death is inevitable, right? We can’t easily anticipate that moment of death which, in our fear, seems like a moment of horror. But perhaps what Jesus wants us to embrace is the truth that faith is deliverance, recovery, if you will, into the arms of Jesus who calms the water and stills the wind; who grants us eternal peace. That is the promise.

Marcy then read to me some passages from Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (11:1-3).

“What is unseen is eternal,” she says.

And I realize that’s what makes it so hard for us. That’s why we feel so sad. We just can’t see.

“What do you want me to do for you,” asked Jesus of Bartimaeus. “I want to see,” he said. I guess I want to see too.

I am comforted by Marcy’s closing words from 2 Corinthians:

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:16-18).

Jesus who calms the wind and the water is in the boat with us. We’ve already been rescued. When death arrives, we don’t go down in the boat with him. Rather, he lives, and we go into the peace and stillness of eternal recovery in his loving arms, whatever that picture may look like to you.

On the last morning of the silent retreat, gazing at the burning embers of a fire, down by the cross at Hagerman Lake, I see my life in that dying fire. Life is born, bundled up and neat, the little wooden piles lit by the spark of God’s breath. We burn down across the years, mellowing out in embers to the final ripple of heat and passion before the sizzle ends and we turn cold. I watch as white wispy puffs of smoke unfurl above the embers until the breeze lifts the swirl off and it disappears in the air. We don’t always know how the fire of our faith affects others. But, matter is neither created nor destroyed. So, what are we afraid of? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There is another story other than that of the dying fire. There is transformation for those who believe.