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A Walk Through the Woods

01 Sep

IMG_1725Nearby our summer home in Maine, there’s a long and rather rough dirt road that runs several miles just outside of the town of Island Falls; at the end of this road a footpath that winds another mile or so through the woods to a small clearing along the banks of the west branch of the Mattawamkeag River.  It’s a place well-known in the region as “Bible Point,” and given that it was a beautiful Sabbath morning during my recent vacation my youngest son and I decided this might be a good and appropriate time to make the journey.  It was definitely worth the trip: truly, as we hiked along this trail lined by towering hemlocks and 300 year-old pines, not only was I reminded yet again of the utter beauty and boundless wonder of this part of God’s creation, I also found myself reflecting on someone who many, many years before had also walked through these woods, and who had been moved in much the same way.

You see, this particular location deep in forests of Aroostook is significant in that it happens to have been a favorite spot of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt: in fact, he would write in his later years that he owed a great personal debt to that part of the world for shaping him into the man he would become.  As a 21 year-old student at Harvard in the late 1800’s, Roosevelt would travel north to Maine to go hunting and fishing in the wilderness with a gentleman by the name of William Wingate Sewall, a woodsman and guide from Island Falls, which at that time was still pretty wild and wooly country.  Apparently, the two provided quite the contrast: Roosevelt a young man of wealth and social status who was being groomed for great things, Sewall “a son of the soil” who, it was said, “as a matter of principle never drank or smoked and who read the Bible daily.”

And yet while they may have come from different backgrounds, the two nonetheless became fast friends, a relationship that endured for a lifetime. Roosevelt used to say that Bill Sewall was one of the most “self-respecting, duty-performing and life-enjoying” people he’d ever known, and there was no better legacy to leave for the next generations than that.  Interestingly, for his part Bill Sewall wrote years later that as a wilderness guide he’d never seen anybody quite like Roosevelt before, describing him as “a thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart!”

Journey RooseveltHowever, there was one trait of the future president that stayed strong in Sewall’s memory: how, when they were camping and fishing deep in those woods along the Mattawamkeag, each morning “Mr. Roosevelt would take his Bible… and [hike] alone to a certain spot in the woods;” and there he would sit, fish, read scripture and pray. It was a spiritual discipline that ultimately made a great deal of difference in the life of the young TR, who of course went on to have a rich and historic life and career.  But even with all the challenges he faced throughout his lifetime and as President of the United States, the memories of those early days spent in the Maine woods were never far from Roosevelt’s mind and heart; he considered those quiet times spent in communion with the Lord “and the wonder and beauty of the visible world” to be a singular experience that guided him forward in every way.

I thought about all this as Zach and I quietly drew near to that special place of retreat, which since 1921 has been preserved as a national historical landmark. This particular summer, after all, has been filled to overflowing with chaos, crisis, and confusion; and even on a peaceful Sunday morning (and though I had made some concerted effort on this vacation to avoid it altogether) I must confess that my ears were still ringing with all the noise of harsh rhetoric and conflicting, divisive viewpoints that regretfully has become part and parcel of this year’s electoral cycle, and which has become all too contagious in a world that struggles to exist in whole peace, with true justice, and – dare I say it – with love. To borrow a line from Shakespeare, these days there has been a whole lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and as persons and as a people we are the lesser for it.  Better, it would seem to me, for our leaders (and we ourselves!) to be seeking out those moments of quiet contemplation; perchance to be guided forward with integrity, true wisdom and – again, dare I say it – faith for the living (and leading) of these days.  And it has happened, even in the most unlikely of times and in and through the most unlikely of people: it’s no coincidence that on a wooden plaque found at this landmark there can be found the words, “Stranger, rest here, and consider what one man, having faith in the right and love for his fellows, was able to do for his country.”  The rest, as they say, is history; but history starts, at least I believe it starts, with a humble and prayerful attitude.

My son and I lingered for quite some time at Bible Point before we made the trek back to camp.  Somebody’s made a makeshift bench out log that overlooks the river, and it was indeed the perfect place for prayer and reflection.  There’s also a post on which there’s been built a homemade wooden box, inside of which is a guestbook for visitors to sign… and a worn copy of the Holy Bible. I signed the guestbook, and then picked up the Bible and casually thumbed through its pages; wondering, perhaps, if those who had come before had marked a passage that was meaningful for them as they’d encountered this beautiful spot.  Interestingly enough, the Bible opened easily to one particular page; and the verses that immediately caught my eye were from Psalm 90:  “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  (vs. 1-2)

A true word of divine affirmation, if ever there was one; but also, I might add, a good assurance in these strange times for the journey ahead.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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