Take Heart! It Is I.  
Take Heart! It is I.

I always seem to know when it’s time to move to the next state. When I get that feeling, I can’t stand stopping until I cross the state line, no matter how late it is. Planning time is impossible because of all the surprise divine encounters along the way. The result is that I often arrive late, just across a state line and spend the night in a border town.

Saturday night between Minnesota and South Dakota was no exception. Long winding detours along unmarked country roads near Highway 12 had made traveling slow and frustrating. I crossed the South Dakota state line at about 7:30 P.M., hungry and exhausted. Delightful Hartford Beach State Park on Big Stone Lake was to be home for the night.

As I pulled into the state park, I asked Jeremy, the friendly blond headed young man who checked me in, about churches the next day.

“You probably want to drive into Milbank,” he said. “You’ll have the best selection there. Just go left on Highway 15 for about 14 miles.” I thanked him and drove to my campsite.

Walking Belle was the first order of business. When we pull into a new campground, I always say excitedly, “Belle, we’re at our campsite! We’re at our campsite!” By the time we pull into our assigned slot, she’s wiggly with the anticipation of getting to run. We were camping at the top of a big hill. Pictures are on the website in the photo gallery under South Dakota – Big Stone Like – Hartford Beach State Park. At the bottom of the hill was Big Stone Lake. On went the leash and we ran frolicking together all the way down to the lake. Shelties like to run circles so at the bottom of the hill, I gave her the entire 25 feet of leash and prayed by the lake as she ran circles around me. Then we both ran back up the hill. I plugged Happy in and warmed up my left over wild rice, ham, and squash.

As I was finishing dinner, Jeremy drove up with a map of Milbank. He had circled all the churches with yellow highlighter pen. Shyly, he said, “I’d probably get reprimanded if I didn’t at least invite you to my church.” He quickly added, “I won’t be there. I work tomorrow. I always go to the Wednesday night service.”

“You’re church is exactly where I’ll go,” I said enthusiastically. “God often sends a messenger about churches and tonight, you’re it. Which church is yours?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t somewhere where they would invite me to move into a commune and drink Kool-Aid.

He pulled the map back out and showed me the American Lutheran Church, where he’d already put a big yellow X. “I think the service is at 9:00. They don’t have Sunday School in the summer.”

I was thrilled. “Wow, I just told my husband that I hadn’t been to a Lutheran church on this trip and hoped to find one this Sunday.” Knowing I didn’t have cell coverage and needed to give Bob an update about where I was, I asked, “Is there a payphone near by?”

“It’s a short way down that trail,” Jeremy said, pointing to the sign that said, Trail to Lake. “It’s by the bathhouse next to the picnic area.”

That didn’t sound too bad. It was 8:30 and getting dark. I grabbed Belle, a flashlight, my phone card, and some quarters. I looked down at my flip-flops. My heel has been hurting for most of this trip so I briefly considered changing into hiking shoes. I glanced at the darkening sky and rushed out the door in my flip-flops.

The rocky, hilly trail followed the lake that was shimmering from the setting sun. The tree coverings were dense so the trail was already a little dark. Grateful I’d brought a flashlight, I started walking faster, regretting the lack of proper shoes. You know better than this, I scolded myself.

I came to a fork in the road and wondered which way to go. When uncertain, to help remember the way back, I always bear right. I came to a clearing at the lake where 3 young boys were fishing for turtles. They hooked one just as I walked up and were excitedly reeling it in. “He’s hooked in the leg,” the younger boy shouted, jumping up and down. I looked over at their stack of upside down turtles to realize this was turtle number three.

I’d never heard of turtle fishing. Was this humane or legal? I wondered, bothered by seeing these turtles on their backs. Using my best parental voice, I questioned the boys. They seemed to know what they were doing and were not the least bit intimidated by my tone.

Across the lake, the beautiful male deer that appeared out of the woods distracted me. It’s feeding time, I thought delightedly as I snapped pictures. I asked the boys how to find the picnic area.

“Just keep following the trail,” the oldest one said.

“Is it a long way?” I asked.

“It’s a pretty good walk,” he said. He was right. Belatedly, I remembered how young Jeremy had looked. The words “short walk” obviously meant something different to him than it did to me. Knowing the call home was the right thing to do, I pressed onward.

When I arrived at the picnic area, I couldn’t find the phone but spotted Jeremy, sitting in a cart, talking to beautiful young woman in a skimpy bikini. Great, I thought. He’s not going to want to answer my question.

I walked up to the couple deeply engrossed in conversation. I heard the young woman say, “My friend said, ‘Just think. Not everyone can say they’ve been to jail.’ I agreed but reminded her that I hadn’t wanted to be one of those people who could say they’d been to jail.” I was dying to ask what they were talking about but have learned the hard way the difference between my nosey curiosity and God giving me divine direction. Exercising self-control, I asked about the phone and Jeremy politely pointed.

I looked longingly at the dock and decided it was too late to linger. I went to the phone and quickly dialed. To my dismay, the number 0 only worked occasionally. Naturally, there are several 0’s in the calling card number so it took several tries to get through. I felt like I was in one of those slow motion dreams where everything goes wrong.

“Bob,” I said, when I finally got him. “It’s getting dark and I have a long walk back through dense woods. I’m at a pay phone and just wanted to let you know where I am and that I’m safe.” Bob was holding our grandson Noah and didn’t really want to talk anyway. It was the shortest conversation we’d ever had.

I hung up, homesick for Noah, and Belle and I made a beeline back to the trail. Thinking we were frolicking again, Belle kept trying to play tug-a-war with the leash. I was in no mood for play. It was completely dark. I had contemplated asking Jeremy to drive Belle and me back to our campsite but didn’t have the heart to tear him away from the bikini.

I turned on my flashlight and made my way along the trail. Bushes around me rustled. The ground next to me crunched as an unseen small animal scurried near by. I don’t remember this many sounds on the walk over, I thought nervously, looking in every direction. I heard a high-pitched screech off in the distance. Is that a mountain lion? I wondered. I didn’t know what a mountain lion sounded like, but the sound I heard resembled a bigger version of my cat, Smudge, when Belle is chasing her. Am I imagining things? I wondered hopefully.

I heard it again, only louder. I looked down at Belle and thought, Great, I’ve brought bait for a giant hungry feline. I wondered what Belle would do if a mountain lion charged us. Would she try to protect me or would she run, the way she does when a noisy Chihuahua walks up.

Belle and I started walking faster. Was it feeding time for mountain lions? I speed up again. Adrenaline is amazing, I thought as I quickly moved up and down the hills without even being winded.

Heart pounding, I realized I was terrified of the sounds in the darkness. Up until that Saturday night in South Dakota, I’d never been afraid of the woods. I’m a careful hiker. I always stay on marked and common trails, make sure I’m noisy so I don’t surprise wildlife, usually wear good shoes, and carry bear spray in areas with a high bear population. I don’t often walk at night, but I have before without being frightened.

Normally, I don’t fear what is statistically improbable. Being eaten by wild animals in a state park may happen on occasion, but statistically, I was safer than when driving Happy on the highway. Where were these fears coming from? I wondered.

I winced as I realized I’d been walking so quickly that I’d seriously hurt my already sore heel. I slowed down and breathed deeply. I touched the bracelet on my arm that said, “I am always with you” and gave my fear to God. I limped the rest of the way home, enjoying the sounds of the woods. If I was about to be eaten, I wanted my last few minutes on earth to be pleasant.

I walked into Jeremy’s church the next day to be handed a bulletin that said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27) Naturally, the sermon topic was “Fear.” When I realized the sermon hymn was “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore,” I went to laughing. God has such a sense of humor.

The sermon text was Matthew 14:22-33.

Matt 14:22-33
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.

When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take heart! It is I. Don't be afraid."

"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."

"Come," he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?"

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." NIV

My traveling adventures are a lot like Peter walking on water. As long as I keep my eyes on Jesus, I do fine. Like Peter asking if he could come to Jesus on the water, I ask God what to do and wait for instructions. When my faith slips, like Peter, I sink and Jesus has to reach out and catch me. As he catches me, I hear Him whispering, “Take heart! It is I. Do not be afraid.”

The pastor, Rev. Janine Rew-Werling offered comfort as she said, “To have fear is to be human.” She then went on to remind us that fear is a part of our sinful nature. “Unbelief puts our circumstances between us and God. Faith puts God between us and our circumstances.” She repeated that last statement a second time for effect. Both halves of that statement had been true for me the night before. My fear of the woods was a natural part of my sinful nature.

After church, I attended their church wide coffee fellowship. “Does South Dakota have mountain lions?” I asked.

“Actually, we do,” someone answered. “For some reason, they’re coming closer to civilization.” I wondered if bear spray worked on mountain lions.


Cheryle M. Touchton is the Director of Pocket Full of Change Ministries. For more information or to schedule a speaker for an event, go to www.pocketfullofchange.org or call Cheryle Touchton at 904-614-3585.

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