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'Utterly cared for': Minister writes of finding peace, link to God in nature

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'Utterly cared for': Minister writes of finding peace, link to God in nature





Jul 26, 2007


Tribune Staff Writer


John Lionberger, a United Church of Christ minister and religious author, admits there are times when he is tempted to not believe in God. "Faith just isn't a head thing at all. I could talk myself out of God just in a heartbeat," he says in a telephone interview.


"But if I listen to my heart, I think that's the truer voice. That's the grounded voice. I guess, the ancient voice."


It's a voice he didn't hear growing up in South Bend, the son of a doctor and part of a family that went to church in an era "when it was important to be seen in church."


"I just couldn't quite make any sense of it. It looked like God either couldn't control (the world) or gave us just enough rope to hang ourselves and we were doing a pretty good job of it," he says.


Fast-forward through college, a master's degree in journalism, marriage, two children and a successful career in broadcasting and the cable industry.In celebration of Lionberger's 50th birthday, his wife, Jane, gives him a seven-day trip with Outward Bound. The participants use cross-country skis to break a trail for a dog-sled team through forests and across frozen lakes in northern Minnesota. The trip is so rigorous, they sleep in the snow under tarps with no tents.


It's during a moment when Lionberger is alone on this trip that he feels God. Dark is approaching, and he takes a moment to stretch before rejoining his group.


"In that posture, and in that cold, without warning, I am suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that I'm standing in a shower of pure and profound warmth, from the inside out," he writes in his new book "Renewal in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting With God in the Natural World" (SkyLight Paths Publishing, $16.99).


"A sense of peace that's bone-true and javelin-straight floods me, dwarfing any similar sensation I've ever had. My eyes shoot open to see what's causing this sensation of pure warmth, but there is nothing to see except the darkening sky."He feels "utterly cared for."


"I want an explanation, but there is none," he writes. "In the back of my mind there's a niggling thought that I quickly shove down ... then shove down again ... and again. Then, despite my severest attempts to trap it, the thought springs full-blown and scary into my consciousness.


" 'Could it be God?' "


Hell, no, he tells himself.


But the peaceful feeling stays, and he searches for answers when he returns home.As he wrestles with his new-found beliefs, God compounds his problem by calling him to ministry. He's in the library when God "ambushes" him as he's thinking about what type of ministry to start.


"And the voice of inspiration (God?) answered immediately, something to this effect: 'You are an idiot, aren't you? Take people into the wilderness to find what you found!' " he writes.


So in 2002, after finishing a master's degree in divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary, he started Renewal in the Wilderness, a nondenominational ministry. The program takes men and women of all faiths into the wilderness for one day to a week. He averages 4 1/2 trips a year.


Why the wilderness? Because throughout time and across religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Shintoism, among others, nature has been the place for connecting with God, Lionberger writes. The vastness and unpredictability of the wilderness are reminders that God is a powerful creator and that people need to find God in the places He created.


"God is not the God of comfortable places," he writes. "God usually doesn't visit us in life-changing ways at our desks or in our easy chairs. Spiritually or otherwise, places on the edge -- wilderness places (of any kind) -- have much to teach us. It's always been that way."His book, which was released in June, takes the reader with Lionberger as he canoes on the Rio Grande, backpacks in Alaska, mountain-bikes in North Carolina, walks Incan trails in the Andes, and wanders through other wilderness spots in the United States and abroad.


Though Lionberger travels far and wide, he makes it clear to readers that there are opportunities for wilderness experiences close to home.


"You don't need thousands of miles of open space and a backpack or canoe to move into a natural setting," he writes. "Think local parks, state parks, rivers, ponds, or lakes. Where might you go this week?"


The important thing is to "go to those places with awareness, open to surprise" and to live in the moment.


Lionberger, who lives in Evanston, Ill., has a master's degree in journalism, and it shows in the heartfelt details of his writing. The book is never pushy or pompous. It doesn't alienate those who don't believe in God or aren't certain about their beliefs. Indeed, Lionberger writes "Even atheists have experiences in the wilderness that transcend the normal boundaries of their lives and move them to believe that they're connected to the larger universe. ... And while they may not call those experiences 'spiritual,' they know they've been touched in ways that defy both reason and explanation."


That this experience is universal and age-old never fails to impress him: "The experience has been so similar for so many thousands of years. ... This is stunning. This is just stunning."


Staff writer Christine Cox:


(574) 235-6173

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