There are No Coincidences in Our Father’s World

For the past several months I have followed a blog called “Hike It Forward” written by Dr. Dave Rough who is the Academic Dean at the Dayton Christian School System. Dr. D., as he calls himself, begins his 2,186 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) next Saturday from Springer Mountain, GA. His hike will raise scholarship funds for students who might not otherwise be able to attend Dayton Christian School.

In his preparatory hikes Dr. D. has logged many miles on the trails of the local and state parks in southwest Ohio, parks that my wife Leah and I often hike as a couple and with our family from North Cincinnati Community Church. In fact, there have been a few occasions where we have been on the same trail on the same day, but have never actually crossed paths.

Yesterday, as we were waiting for our amazing group (22 adults and 23 children) from NCCC to arrive at the Flat Fork Ridge Recreation Area in Caesar Creek State Park, I noticed a gentleman with a fully loaded backpack crossing the parking lot to his car. It struck me that this very well could be Dr. D., and as God’s providence would have it, it was!

We had only a brief conversation, however I felt an immediate bond, both as a Christian brother and as a fellow hiker. Most assuredly I will be praying daily for his safety and success!

To learn more about Dr. D. and his hike visit his blog at: http://hikeitforward.wordpress.com/

Hiking group from North Cincinnati Community Church at the Flat Fork Ridge Recreation Area, Caesar Creek State Park, Waynesville, Ohio.

Hiking group from North Cincinnati Community Church at the Flat Fork Ridge Recreation Area, Caesar Creek State Park, Waynesville, Ohio.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014.

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A Theology of Christian Retreat

When we read the Gospels we learn, among many things, the story of Christ’s earthly ministry.  We read about crowds of people following him everywhere he went, even in the remotest of locations.  In Matthew 14:13 we read of Jesus’ reaction after his disciples told him about the death of John the Baptist:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

Certainly after hearing the news of John’s death he was seeking some time away from the crowds, time alone with his disciples to mourn, and time to go to his Father in prayer.  The account of these same events in Mark 6:30-32 goes even further, telling us Christ’s intentions in his own words:

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.  And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.“  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

Although Jesus does not escape the crowds on this particular occasion—this is, after all, where he performs the miracle of feeding the five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes—his purpose is clear.  He and his disciples had been very busy in their ministry efforts, so busy they barely had time to eat.  Christ was being deliberate with his disciples; he knew they were weary and needed rest, and in his loving kindness he wanted to do something about it.

When our head pastor gave a sermon on Mark 6:30-32 a few years ago, I was inspired.  I had been talking to my wife off-and-on about how we might use our love of hiking and the outdoors as a tool for ministry.  Here was a great example from Christ’s own earthly ministry that retreat and fellowship are important needs in our lives and in our ministries.  What struck me most on this occasion was not just that Christ wanted to escape the crowds, but that he wanted to get away to a “desolate place,” proposing not only a time of rest, but also a remote setting.  I learned much later, consulting Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, that the word “desolate,” (ref. #2048) used in the ESV, can also be translated as desert, solitary, or wilderness, adding emphasis to this notion of a remote setting.

After hearing the sermon I rushed home, grabbed my concordance, and began searching Scripture for more examples of Jesus and his disciples “getting away from it all.”  I quickly discovered a number of passages, starting with Christ’s forty day retreat into the wilderness after being baptized by John—though, I would not advocate any attempts to replicate the trials and temptations that Jesus endured, even if you are as adept at wilderness survival as Bear Grylls—and concluding with his retreat to the garden at Gethsemane to go to his Father in prayer on the night he was betrayed.  In all I found twenty-four passages (see the end of this post for the full list) that suggested Jesus, either alone, or with his disciples taking time away.  While several of these are parallel accounts from more than one Gospel, and others do not exactly fit the definition of a wilderness retreat, I do believe they all serve as a solid, biblical basis for what I call a theology of Christian retreat.

It became clear to me at this point that I needed to start a hiking fellowship ministry.  I had considered the idea on several occasions, but never went forward with it because of a mistaken impression that any fun or relaxing activity could not possibly be a serious ministry.  After all, I wasn’t feeding the poor, or teaching some great theological truth to a classroom full of people, so how could I be doing “real” ministry.  Thankfully this passage in Mark, our pastor’s sermon, and my subsequent searching of scripture, helped me overcome this mistaken impression, and see more clearly where this ministry fits into the overall ministry landscape (pun fully intended) of Christian fellowship and retreat.  Since that time, my wife and I have been blessed on many occasions to share the amazing beauty of God’s creation with others, and I have often been encouraged by the feedback and thanks I have received from those who have taken to the trails with us on our hikes.

In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Those who know Jesus as their Lord and Savior have been set free.  We cannot earn salvation through our works!  But, as redeemed followers of Christ, we do have an obligation to honor him through diligent labor in our daily jobs and obedient service in the ministries to which we have been called.  Yet, for those who labor, he does promise that he will give us rest.  Personally, the best way I know of to find that promised rest is getting away from the hustle-and-bustle of daily life and going hiking in the vast and beautiful wilderness, the “desolate places,” that our awesome God has created and given us to enjoy!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.

Bible References:
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness:
Matthew 4:1-21 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Mark 1:12-1312 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
Luke 4:1-21 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.

After Jesus cleanses a Leper:
Mark 1:45 – But he [the leper] went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
Luke 5:15-1615 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.

Jesus Seeks Retreat after Learning of John the Baptist’s Death:
Matthew 14:13 – Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
Mark 6:30-32 – The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.  And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.“  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
Luke 9:10 – On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.
John 6:1 – After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.

After Feeding the Five Thousand (Just before Jesus Walks on Water):
Matthew 14:22-2322 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
Mark 6:45-4745 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.
John 6:15 – Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

The Transfiguration:
Matthew 17:1-21 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
Mark 9:2 – And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them
Luke 9:28-2928 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.

Jesus Prays in the Garden at Gethsemane on the Night He is Betrayed
Matthew 26:36 – Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.”
Mark 14:32 – And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
Luke 22:39-4139 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed

Other Passages:

Mark 1:35 – And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.

Mark 4:10 – And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.

Luke 4:42-4342 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”

Luke 6:12-1312 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.

Luke 9:18-2018 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

John 11:54 – Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.

North Cincy MVP Camp 2013

It was another great year for MVP Camp at North Cincinnati Community Church!  This despite the MAJOR road construction project limiting access to the church (the normally busy, two-way, paved road is currently a rutted, gravel path only open to the church driveway from one direction),

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and MAJOR thunderstorms on Monday and Tuesday.

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By God’s provision, the storms caused only a short delay on Monday evening, allowing the sports activities to go ahead as planned.  Tuesday the rain ended before camp started but returned later, resulting in a very soggy end to the evening.  Quite incredibly, though, we were blessed both evenings with double rainbows, great displays of God’s promise and handiwork!

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Even though the rain ended in time on Monday and Tuesday, we still decided to run some of the outdoor adventure camp activities inside to avoid having the children spend 90 minutes sitting on the completely saturated ground!  The outdoor safety, first aid, and surprisingly the setting up camp, portions were easily adapted to the indoor setting.  Every year things get a little smoother, and this year was no exception, even with the weather issues.  Experience is certainly a good teacher.

Wednesday and Thursday turned out to be the two nicest evenings in the history of MVP camp with low humidity and temperatures in 70s, which is rather unusual for late July here in southwestern Ohio!  As usual, we ended our outdoor adventure camp activities on Thursday night with the most popular and anticipated event of the week, the campfire and s’mores, enjoyed while we watched an amazing display of God’s handiwork unfold across the western sky.

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The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky
above proclaims his handiwork.
 Psalm 19:1 (ESV)

The week wrapped up on Friday evening with the closing rally.  This was a chance for the children and their parents to watch a video presentation of the week’s activities and performances by the children in the music and ballet tracks, hear a testimony from one of the track leaders, and closing remarks from our youth pastor.  The evening concluded with a gallery of artwork from the children in the art track and lively time of fellowship and refreshments.

Attendance was down a bit this year, around 120 children.  But, this is not too surprising given the road construction that quite likely limited the number of last-minute, walk-in registrants, which in past years has been fairly significant.  Based on the numbers in the outdoor adventure camp, I suspect we drew good attendance from outside our church again this year.  We had 18 children in outdoor adventure camp, with eight of them coming from outside our church.

But, even with the lower attendance, it was a great week, and the children had a wonderful time learning new skills in their chosen pursuits and about the Most Valuable Pursuit of all, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.

The Most Valuable Pursuit of All

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Most of us have heard the term most valuable player, or MVP, in the context of the secular, sports world, and understand it as an honor bestowed upon individual athletes who excel in their chosen sport.  In 2011 the youth pastor at our church (North Cincinnati Community Church in Mason, Ohio) decided to take a different approach to summertime youth ministry.  Rather than offering one of the traditional Vacation Bible School (VBS) programs found in many churches across America, he chose to design a new program.  The name chosen for this program was MVP, which in this case stands for Most Valuable Pursuit.

The idea behind MVP Camp is to expose children to the gospel message through the arts (art, music, & ballet), athletics (baseball, basketball, football, soccer, & golf), and outdoor adventure (cool stuff like hiking, camping, orienteering, & roasting marshmallows over a campfire), activities pursued passionately by many in today’s society, Christian and non-Christian alike.  We teach the children skills in their chosen pursuit, and that these activities are wonderful gifts from God that should always be pursued with honor and excellence; but, ultimately, the Most Valuable Pursuit of all is a personal and life-long relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

At the start of each evening the children gather in the church sanctuary to hear an opening speaker who is a leader in one of the offered pursuits, and who is also a devoted follower of Christ, demonstrating that the pursuit of these activities can indeed be God honoring, and that Jesus is our Most Valuable Pursuit of all.  The children then disperse into smaller groups for instruction in their chosen activity for the remainder of the evening.  On Friday evening, the final night of the week long MVP Camp, we hold one large gathering where parents are invited to attend, along with their children, to learn about the week’s activities and hear a closing speaker’s testimony.

From the beginning of the MVP program I have been blessed to lead the camp’s outdoor adventure track.  I frequently tell others that I have just as much fun as (maybe even more than) the kids in my camp, and that serving Christ in this manner is a tremendous growth opportunity and blessing for me personally.  In the interest of keeping this post from getting too long I will save a more detailed description of my outdoor adventure camp activities for a future post.

In the first two years MVP Camp has been well received by those within our church and by those in the community around us.  We started big the first year, with around 150 children, and had nice growth in participation the second year, with nearly half of the children coming from outside our church both years.  We are now preparing for our third year and praying that the growth trend continues, despite a major road construction project limiting access to our church driveway.

By taking advantage of society’s fascination with sports and other extracurricular activities the hope is to attract a more diverse cross section of the community, particularly those who are un-churched and may shy away from the more traditional VBS offerings.  I believe this mission is being accomplished and that the gospel message is being proclaimed quite effectively through this ministry.

To God be the glory!!!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.