Rhythm, the Woods, and Youth Ministry

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote those words 170 years ago.  And it seems to me that, over the last two centuries, desperation’s volume has well surpassed any semblance of “quiet.”  A brief survey of the average Instagram account screams fearful discontent.  Thoreau, in response to his own contemporary situation, promptly headed into the wilderness.

Rhythm, the Woods, and YM

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

This past summer, I visited the very pond where Thoreau penned those words in his seminal book, Walden.  Sitting there among the trees, his thoughts and actions seemed to press several questions upon me.

“Where do I experience the nagging voice of desperation in my own life and in the lives and culture around me?”

“Why do I often retreat into the wilderness, and why do I think it important for others to do the same?”

“What does it mean to live deliberately and what is to be gained?”

“Is a deliberate and balanced life even possible?”

The Wilderness

For the past 20 years, I have been leading and guiding wilderness trips and have experienced the profound transformation that happens there.  Through the hiking of miles, the telling of stories, the chopping of wood, the silence of solitude, and the sharing of meals, I have witnessed the redemption and reconciliation of fractured lives and relationships.

Yet, the questions raised above push me to get at the heart of why and how this all comes about in places far from the comfort of french fries, central AC and a strong wifi connection.

I believe that one possible reason is that of rhythm.

Rhythm in the Wilderness

In the woods, as I’ve experienced it, days are governed by the movement of the sun far more than the movement of the clock.  When enough time is spent away from the tyranny of deadlines, soccer practices and “Dancing With the Stars” marathons, there develops a pattern of work, play, reflection and rest that is intrinsic to the physical environment and to those who have chosen to dwell there.

And in this pattern, mind, body, and soul become integrated in a way that is often absent in regular living.  For some, the virtual world dominates their modern lives and the body is neglected.  For others, the busyness of work and frantic activity make reflection impossible.  Some are consumed by worry, others by unrelenting schedules.  Most long for a place and a time to be still, to sit with a friend, to laugh at the day’s events, and to enjoy an unhurried drink.  It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.  Or, as Eugene Peterson would say it, the  “unforced rhythms of grace.”

For many of the high school and college folks that I take on trips, the initial shock of being without phones, car keys, and hair straighteners immediately besets them with symptoms of withdrawal.  However, as the week progresses, the ever-present anxiety of regular life begins to dissipate.  They sleep well.  They take time to enjoy simple meals.  They spend hours talking, working, resting.  Days are emptied of technological and psychological distraction, and, instead, become filled with joy.

This is, of course, what we encounter in the life and person of Jesus. 

He moved effortlessly between activity and rest, community and solitude, prayer and silence, work and Sabbath, the miraculous and mundane, city and wilderness.  His life was true Incarnation where there existed no false dichotomy between body and spirit.   Wholeness and holiness dwelled together in His sacramental life.  And it is in this sacramental life which we are invited to participate.

It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.

The Spirit pushes us into the wilderness to experience, with the Son, the words of the Father saying, “You are my beloved, so take a nap.  Walk and work in the garden.  Reflect on the suffering you have witnessed and come to me for healing.  Look at the stars.  Experience life the way it was meant to be lived.  Welcome to the kingdom of God.”

Want to Lead a Wilderness Retreat for Your Students?

If you think the wilderness could be a place where you students could grow in their relationship with God, check out David’s video guides on how to lead a wilderness retreat. To find out more about the full guide, visit The Wilderness: A Retreat Guide Focused on the Spiritual Life.

About the Author: David Johnson

david johnson - kindred youth ministryDavid Johnson has been working with students over 20 years, and leading wilderness retreats for almost as long. A former YoungLife leader, David is also the author of the Kindred Youth Ministry Wilderness Retreat Guide.