I began writing this post at the foot of Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. I set out one morning to find a quiet spot in the forest where I could spend some time writing. I found, what I thought to be, the perfect place at a pick nick table right off of the road along the banks of Davidson River. There I was, all alone with the Lord when an SUV pulled up and four fly fishermen sprang out of the vehicle wearing waders and equipment with all the necessary gear. I sensed the Lord saying, “Now this is the perfect spot.” What I perceived of the fishermen is that one was a guide from one of the local outfitters instructing the other three. It appeared that it might very well have been the three novices first trip to the river with their guide patiently moving between the three offering his hand of guidance.
I found this intrusion upon my solitude very appropriate in that the story that I am attempting to unfold is deeply personal, while at the same time indicative to struggle that we all face. We all have our personal battles, yet we are all in this together. So many of us struggle alone when all we need to do is just open our hearts and reach out; help is but a whisper away.
Many of you have read my book, “Purgatory; Heaven’s Healing Waters.” Since it was published, I have been amazed, but not surprised, at the number of people who have opened up to me about their struggles in reconciling their abusive pasts. Many have shared that they felt that I have another book within its pages, wanting to know more about my past and more importantly, about my recovery.
I have started writing, not being sure that I am ready. But, like so many who have gone before, I feel it is time to begin, relying on God’s strengths, not on my own. How many who have gone into battle have felt ready when the lines have been drawn? Whether acknowledged or not we are in a battle. In a war for the hearts, minds, and souls of the ones we love. As St. Paul encourages Timothy we are to “fight the good fight of the faith (1 Timothy 6:16).”
To be encouraged to fight implies a struggle. Note that Timothy is not encouraged, nor were any of the prophets or apostles, to become tucked away in a quiet corner licking their wounds, but engaged on the front line. This is not to imply that seeking a place of quiet and solitude to be with the Lord is wrong, but we are called to battle. We are called to fight. There is a time to hide away with the Lord for a period of healing, but this time of healing is for the purpose of preparing us to continue in the struggle.
This purpose of this post is to share with you the very unexpected way in which I feel the Lord has spoken to me over the past couple of weeks. I would like to begin by sharing with you a relationship that I have developed. I did not view this relationship as a relationship before just a few days ago when the Lord spoke to me in a very powerful way, and as I mentioned above, also very unexpected.
This relationship is with a rock; a very large rock, measuring in height over sixteen hundred feet, and over two miles long. Many who have read my past posts, may be guessing that this rock to be Looking Glass Rock, the very rock at whose base I sat when I began writing this post. For the past eight years, from the beginning of my recovery, this rock has been part of my life. I have snapped well over a thousand photographs of her in a relentless pursuit of capturing the perfect image of this monolithic giant that has become much more than a fascination. You can find her image front and center on my photography website; https://wjnovack.smugmug.com. I have climbed her many times, wept many tears upon her shoulders and looking upon her from afar. I have witnessed the splendor of watching the sun rise to warm her face no less than a hundred times. She is a magnificent beauty of God’s creation.
I spent from August of 2008 until December of 2009, in an amazing but painful retreat from my life hidden away in the woods of North Carolina healing from the wounds of my past. During this time the mountains became a place of solitude and sanctuary with the Lord. I love being in the house of the Lord, but I am not sure that there is any place other than in the cathedral of the forest where He speaks to me more deeply.
Since that time I have moved back to Florida to reclaim my marriage and family, while visiting my place refuge as often as possible. I am blessed, in that my mother in father live in those mountains giving me plenty opportunity to return. I am writing about a hike to the top of my old friend, Looking Glass Rock, that I experienced just a short time ago during one of these visits.
I suffer from a condition called atrial fibrillation or better known as a-fib. A-fib is a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly, and at times with very fast, shallow, and ineffective, causing the sufferer to be weak and lightheaded. Some suffer from this condition chronically, meaning that it never stops and they live with it for their entire lives. I am not one of those people. My episodes come and go and are somewhat treatable with medication, typically lasting for twelve to twenty-four hours. My cardiologist says that I will most likely die from something other than a-fib. These episodes, although not life-threatening, can be little scary when my heart feels like it is going to beat out of my chest, I’m light headed and from time to time experience chest pains similar to a heart attack.
During my visit I planned a hike to the top of my old friend, Looking Glass Rock. The morning that I had planned my assent to the top of the rock, I was experiencing a-fib, which was very frustrating because I had suffered from the effects of the condition the entire day before. This episode was a rule breaker, as I mentioned above it typically only lasts for a day or so, two days is very unusual. I decided to go on my hike anyway. I showed up at the trailhead at 7:00 am and headed up the trail and within a hundred yards was experiencing considerable pain. Typically a-fib is relatively painless but annoying, but if a person, as I was doing, pushes the body into what would be considered cardio exercise, it can be very painful and can mimic the feeling of a heart attack in that the chest feels very tight and extreme lightheadedness can be experienced. Well, this is what I was feeling, but something inside of me prompted me to keep going. I soon began to pray for myself, and over my condition in the name of Jesus. I continued for about another half a mile when I stepped on a root and twisted my ankle. This was not just a quick turn of the ankle, this was a snap, pop and seeing stars kind of sprain that would, later that day, land me in the emergency room for x-rays.
Immediately upon turning my ankle, I had an impression to keep going. I definitely felt this to be prompting of the Holy Spirit. I understand that some may be thinking that moving forward to be questionable, an opinion that my wife may share. Either way, I pushed forward, and do not regret a single step. I had a truly amazing experience with our Lord all the way to the top of the trail and back to my truck.
My hike to the top was definitely a journey of remembrance. To begin, I need to go back about a week before. During a worship service at church I was petitioning the Lord to comfort me, as I have been dealing with epoxides of anxiety, which I am aware have been triggered by delving back into my history of sexual abuse while writing my new book which is very appropriately titled “Uncomfortable”, subtitled “Untying the Knots of Our Past.”
In the midst of my cries to our Lord, I heard Him ask me “What do you want?” The question came several times as I stood processing a response. The truth is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted. All I knew is that I was very uncomfortable. Then after dwelling in my perplexity, I very clearly heard Him say “No.” I sensed that He was telling me that this season in my life is something that I have been preparing for many years and that it would be uncomfortable. It is as simple as that. Battles are not comfortable, they are a struggle, often for our very lives.
As a member of the Body of Christ, the Church, we are not called out to be comfortable, but sanctified. We are sanctified in that we are called out as separate from the world as saints, to do His good will (Philippians 2:13).
Side Note – I am aware that some take issue with seeing the word Church capitalized. I would like to take a minute to explain that when I write the word Church, I am referring to the Church as a whole, the entire body of Christ; Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Non-Denominational. The Church is the Body of Christ; the word Church should be capitalized unless used in a generic form or to describe a building such as “my church” or “going to church.” Another instance where I feel it is appropriate to capitalize Church, if for no other reason than out of a show of respect, is when referring to a particular movement or denomination such as a “Methodist Church,” or the “Catholic Church,” or the “Protestant Church.”
- for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good will for His good pleasure.
The message of the world is to seek pleasure above all else. We are inundated with this message every day; eat this, drink this, take this if you have the slightest bodily or mental discomfort, sleep in this bed, you deserve to have a bigger home and nicer car, if you neighbor offends you take him to court and sue him, and so on. We, especially as Americans, have tried in many different ways to infuse this message of the world into our Christian culture.
After hearing this very unexpected answer of “no,” I began thinking of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s ministry was anything but comfortable, yet he loved God with an unquenchable passion, as did all of the profits. We are not called to a comfortable life. We are called to war against sin. We are called to a life of faith in the One Who calls us to be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).
Jesus told us before He ascended to be with the Father, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you (St. John 14:27).” He is speaking of the Holy Spirit coming to dwell in the hearts of His saints. The peace that we seek is not of this world. We are called to fight against the ravages of sin and strive to save, through the Blood of Christ, all those who suffer the deception of the king of this world (satan).
- So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own Blood.
- Therefore let us go forth to Him outside the camp and bear the abuse He endured.
- For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.
All of my Christian life I have reached up during times of distress expecting our Father in Heaven to take my hand in comfort, but there comes a time when He needs to be enough. I need to go back another fifteen years to when I was sitting on the tarmac at Pensacola Airport. I was seated on a small twenty-person plain waiting for takeoff. The pilot came on the intercom and told us that we were most likely in for a rough flight because there was thunderstorm activity in the area. I am not comfortable flying on a calm day, and with this news, I was gripped with fear. I immediately begin to pray, “Oh God, please comfort me.” I very clearly heard Him ask me “When will I become your comfort.” In other words, He was asking me when He would be enough? When would He become all that I needed? I remember Him assuring me that He would comfort me, and He did, but followed by saying that there would come a day when He would need to be my comfort. A day faced with adversity when my immediate response is not to reach my hand up in fear, but to press forward in complete confidence in the One Who loves me more than I love myself.
Back to the worship service:
During that worship service, I heard Him tell me to change my prayer form “Please give me comfort,” to “Lord, please give me strength.” These were the words that I heard just moments after I sprained my ankle. I began to pray for strength as I continued upward towards my goal. The trail to the top is a 3.1-mile trail, climbing over sixteen hundred feet in elevation, consisting in large part of twisted roots and jagged rocks and ascending countless switchbacks. This is a tough trail without a-fib or a twisted ankle.
As you can imagine, I became much more focused on every step and continued to pray for strength. I began feeling the presence of the Lord in a very real and very sweet way. He was with me for every step as He has been my entire life, but there are those times when he pulls back the veil just a little bit to give us a feeling or glimpse of Heaven.
Then, I began to focus on the image of a crucifix in my mind. I know I may be losing some of my Protestant readers at the mention of the crucifix, but please hang with me here. I realize that many Protestant brothers and sisters are offended at the sight of the crucifix. They think Catholics somehow do not understand the crucifixion of Christ is a finished work – “Christ died once for all (Hebrews 6:10, Romans 6:10 & 1 Peter 3:8),” and that Catholics are continuously trying to pay for their sins.
Catholic teaching is unambiguous in the understanding of the efficacy of the cross of Christ. Catholics believe very strongly in a doctrine called “The Communion of Saints.” This is the understanding that all members of the Church, the living here on this earth, all that have gone before to be with the Lord in Heaven, and are yet to come, complete and are part of one Body; that one Body being Jesus Christ. This may be a little confusing to Protestants, and trust me it is a little confusing to some Catholics, because the Catholic Church designates certain people who have died as Saints, but the Catholic Church, in truth, considers all who are in Christ to be saints.
The second stanza of the Nicene Creed, which is recited at Catholic Mass, begins, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of the Father.” Without explanation, this may sound a little strange. Some may be thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought we were all sons and daughters of God through the Blood of the Lamb.” This is true, but in the Catholic mind, this is only so if we are in Christ. I understand that Protestants believe this to be true as well, but they do not visualize it the same way as Catholics. This is one of the reasons why the crucifix is such powerful image for Catholics.
The crucifix represents the perfect work of Christ upon the Cross – one Perfect and Holy Sacrifice for the salvation of all humanity who have existed and will ever exist in the future; one single but perpetual sacrifice.
Here is the big one, the reason why the crucifix is so important to Catholics is because we are all to suffer with Christ as part of His Crucifixion.
- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death
- I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
What does it mean to suffer with Christ? Why did Christ suffer? Of course, He suffered for the sin of humanity. The word of God says that “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).” Sin is the cause of all that makes us sick and wounded. Man was not created to live in sin. Man was created to live in perfect union with God in the Garden.
Jesus paid the ultimate price upon the Cross and gave of His Body and poured out His Blood as payment for the sin of all humanity, but we, being His, in Him are ordained to suffer with Him, called to “bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).” Sin is painful, it is ugly, and it sickens, it is the worst in every one of us. Sin is anything but comfortable, but we are not called to be comfortable, we are called to spend our lives striving to suffer with Christ, striving against sin.
Some may say that such an attitude is sick or masochistic. I don’t see it that way – I see it as love. Jesus Christ saved us from a life, no an eternity, of pain and suffering. His Church throughout history has not just been willing to share in His suffering, It has been compelled. The Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Philippians “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).”
The following is a portion of scripture from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. It is written as an encouragement to the believers in Corinth who may have expressed bewilderment at many of the afflictions that they suffer because of their faith.
- We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
- persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
- always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
- For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
2nd Corinthians 4:8-11
Many who come to Christ come with the notion that Jesus is going fix all of their problems and they go to live life happily ever after, leaving the problems of the world far behind. Jesus does mend our wounds when we come to Him, and we are healed mind, body, and soul if we allow Him to complete His perfect work in our lives. Here is what many do not understand on the front end of this process, once we filled with the Holy Spirit and healed, our minds begin working properly and we become compelled by our new nature in Christ with compassion for the suffering and dying of this world. We are given the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), this is to say the mind of God, and also the Heart of God.
When God looks towards humanity His heart burns with compassion:
- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
- For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
St. John 3:16
As “Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24).”
These are the things that I think about as I meditate and focus on the crucifix.
As I continued my trek up the mountain, the harder I pressed forward, the more my chest tightened with pain and my ankle burned with every step. All I needed to do was stop, and pain would stop. So many of us lie down and curl up in the fetal position when the pain becomes too great in our lives because we cannot bear to go forward. This is completely understandable. I spent many years curled up in the bottom of a bottle or with some other way deadening my feelings. Those who are hurting and without hope just simply want the pain to stop and will reach in desperation for any way to achieve that end. However, we who are in Christ have hope and are called to press on through the pain. I can picture Jesus encouraging us through the storms of life, with outstretched arms, “Come on, take my hand. I know it hurts more than you ever imagined possible, don’t lie down, don’t quit, keep on going, we will get through this together.”
As I continued up the trail, I would take short breaks when the pain just became too much. I would put my hand on my knees, hunched over gasping for air, waiting for the tightness in my chest to subside enough so I could keep moving. At times in life, we need to take little breaks – quite times of healing with the Lord, and that’s okay, but we need to keep on moving, and not lie down and quit.
Within a couple of hours, I made it to the top of the rock. The feeling was amazing. I sat down to spend a few minutes in prayer and to enjoy the view. I took a few pictures with my phone, and within a short period of time, my ankle had swollen considerably. I realized that the longer I sat there, the more my ankle would swell, making my return trip more difficult, so got up and made my way back. Let me assure you – the only thing worse than climbing up a trail laden with twisted tree roots and jagged rocks with a sprained ankle, is climbing down such a trail. The nice thing about the descent is that my chest was pain-free, and breathing was much easier – like a walk in the park.
On my way back down, my first trip to the top of the rock came to my remembrance. It was in 2008, soon after my sabbatical in the mountains began. I was driving along one of the forest roads catching glimpses of the rock periodically through breaks in the trees. The desire came as an impulse – when I woke up that morning I had no thought of doing such a thing. I parked my truck at trail that looked like it led towards the rock. I filled my backpack with the essentials; my camera, several travel size bottles of wine, and couple bottles of water, and away I went. Oh yeah, I was drunk. Back then I was pretty much always drunk and typically traveled with well supplied for any occasion. A phrase that I heard years ago has stuck with me, “God takes care of drunks and idiots.” I have no idea of who first spoke this pearl of wisdom, but it was certainly appropriate for that day. I have no doubt that the only reason that I made it out of the woods that day alive was at the Hand of our very compassionate Father.
I headed up the trail for about a mile when came to the bottom of the rock. The trail ran both ways along the base of the rock with no apparent way to the top. I followed the trail until of found a spot I thought I could climb. It was a place where there was a long crag full of trees and underbrush that seemed to extend up the rock at a climbable angle as far up as I could see. I began my ascent bushwhacking my way up the south face. It was in no way a well-traveled path. It took me several hours to complete my conquest. I fell several times, ripped my clothing, and had several scrapes and cuts. Once I reached the top, I discovered a very well traveled trail. I remember feeling a little foolish considering the battle that I had just experienced when I could have walked a nice clear trail if I had been a little less compulsive. I decided to follow the trail back down even though I had no idea where it would end. It was getting late, and in my mind, anything would have been better than going down the way I came up. I came across a few other hikers – I am sure I was quite a sight.
It was well after dark when I made it to the end of the trail. I had a vague idea of where I was. I was exhausted, my feet were blistered, I was very dehydrated and several miles from my truck. The rock had kicked my butt. I started walking and after a mile or so and couple that I had met along the trail were kind enough to give me a ride back to my truck.
Our God is good and worthy of all our praise. When I think back to the first trip up the rock and consider my state of mind and sickness of my heart, I sit in amazement at the work our awesome God has done in my life. Back then I could not have even begun to imagine the work that our Lord has done in my life, and will continue to do until completion.
- And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Filled with the emotional pain of a broken heart and relinquishing hope I climbed the wrong path on my first ascent, but just a few days ago I walked to the top of the rock in physical pain, full of renewed hope along the right path. God was with me during both trips. As children of God it is so very important to remember who we are (children of God), where we came from (dead in our sins), where He has brought us (redeemed and renewed by the blood of His Son), and where we are going (To dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6)).
Back to this trip:
I made my way back to my vehicle and made 40-minute drive back to my folks (mom and dad) house. By the time I stepped out of the truck my ankle was pretty stiff. My wife, Mary, helped me wrap my ankle and pack it in ice. I took a handful of ibuprofen and laid down in the hope of taking a nap. Trying to sleep, it felt like someone was running a dull knife through my ankle didn’t work so well, and taking ibuprofen for the pain was like trying to kill a grizzly bear with a pellet gun. After several hours of trying to manage the pain, we (my wife, Mary and I) finally decided to go to the emergency room at the local hospital. I was also experiencing discomfort in my chest that felt a little different than I had encountered in the past.
Upon arriving at the hospital, the medical personnel brought me back to one of patient rooms a nurse immediately performed an EKG and drew blood, which is typical protocol with chest discomfort. Once the initial procedures were completed, they wheeled me back for chest and ankle x-rays. After waiting a couple of hours the doctor came in and told us that the x-rays came back fine and most of my blood was okay with the exception of one test that they were awaiting the results. The E.K.G showed that I was in a-fib but that my heart was not beating in a way that they would consider dangerous. Therefore, the doctor told us that if the final test came back within normal limits, they would give me some medication for the pain in my ankle and send me home.
Within about thirty minutes the doctor came into the room and said that he had some bad news. The last test they were waiting for came back indicating elevated troponin levels. Troponin is a protein that is released into the bloodstream by the heart wall when it is under the stress of a heart attack. This was the first time in all of my many trips to the hospital for heart issues that I had ever had a test come back with this type of result, which could explain why my chest felt so different. The doctor explained that they would be admitting me to the cardiac ward for observation. I then explained my trip to the top of the rock, offered as a plausible explanation for the stress upon my heart. He just looked at me like “yeah sure” and told me that he needed to consult with the hospital internist and that he would be back.
After about half an hour the doctor returned and explained that the internist had ordered a second blood test in two hours, and would agree to let me go home if my troponin levels had dropped within normal limits. He then told us to prepare to be admitted because troponin levels do not go down that quickly.
Thirty minutes after the second test the doctor came in shaking his head, “You’re not going to believe this, but your troponin levels are within normal limits.” My reply was a simple, “Yes I would.”
- but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2nd Corinthians 12:9
This story in no way a testament as to my strength, but His. What I learned over past eight years is that I am very weak. God has shown me over and over again His and love and His mercy and the sufficiency of His relentless and abounding grace.
I have no doubt that our Father’s Heart melts whenever one of his children cries out for help. I know that He loves to hold every one of us close to His chest in safety and comfort. I am confident that at other times He takes delight when His sons and daughters walk in the confidence of knowing that He right by their side without ever looking up. We need to have faith in Who He is, not in what He can do for us, or even worse, what we can do for ourselves.
I have wrestled with how to end this, and today I heard a song for very first time that ignited my heart and says it so well. The song is “You Make Me Brave” by Bethel Music. I leave you with a few of the words from this song.
“You make me brave
You make me brave
You call me out beyond the shore into the waves
You make me brave
You make me brave
No fear can hinder now the love that made a way”