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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a segment today on going into the wilderness to experience the presence of God. John Lionberger is a former atheist who had a profound religious experience on a wilderness trip. Now an ordained United Church of Christ minister, Lionberger leads others looking for their own experience of the holy. Lionberger is the author of “Renewal in the Wilderness.” He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Earlier this fall, I asked him what happens to the people he takes to the wilderness.
Rev. JOHN LIONBERGER (Author, “Renewal in the Wilderness”): What they encounter in the wilderness is getting away from all of the things in society that we call “trappings” that are meant to be good things, but that keep them away from a more authentic and deeper relationship with God.
ABERNETHY: Lionberger’s trips begin with his coaching.
LIONBERGER: I think what happens for them is they get to the transcendent through the physical—the act of canoeing, the act of setting up camp. I like to say it strips them of the barnacles that they accrue throughout their lives and society, and they begin to realize how little they need to be profoundly happy. They are able to simplify, and in that simplification they get a sense of something holy about what surrounds them, a sense of well being and a sense of being cared for and a sense of profound peace, and it’s kind of a hackneyed phrase—“Be in the moment”—but there is something so powerful about it, because that is the moment, in the very present is when God comes to us. It is much easier, I think, for God to get through our defenses when we’re in a wilderness.
ABERNETHY: I asked Lionberger to recall the conversion experience he had when he was alone on skis on a frozen lake in winter.
LIONBERGER: It was getting dark, and the trees were etched against the skyline in kind of blackness while the skyline was turning purple. I just looked up at the sky and put my arms out like this, with the poles dangling from my wrists, and arched my back, and at that moment I felt like I was in the midst of a warm stream of water that felt so pure and so refreshing and so cleansing and so friendly and so loving, and then it kept coming into my mind, slowly at first, and very dimly at first, but it said, “It’s God.”
Sometimes there are those wonderful explosive moments of experiencing God, but most of the time it’s very, very subtle. It’s just the small things that people ignore that being out in an environment like that brings them to an awareness of. It reminds us of who we are, who we are not, and who God is.
ABERNETHY: Back home, Lionberger tries to recapture some of the wilderness experience in a park near his house, and he says all people can do that.
LIONBERGER: I suggest to them that they have an open heart and a willingness to be surprised, and they do it very consciously. It is part of being here now. It’s part of what the wilderness teaches you.
ABERNETHY: I asked Lionberger whether some people come on his trips and have no sense of anything holy.
LIONBERGER: In the eight years I’ve been doing this, and maybe the 400 people that I’ve taken to the wilderness, I only know of one man who was not really touched by his experience in some way, who said at the end, “I had a good time, but I got no spiritual insight, no spiritual awakenings, nothing like that.” And that is not a bad batting average, one out of 400. I’ll take that.