How often we find ourselves wandering in what feels like wilderness. We wander, and then wander some more, in barren places — in parched, dusty and dry deserts of the soul. We wander in aimless travel that moves us from one nowhere to another. The truth is that we have been nowhere and we’re going nowhere.
It’s a long, hard way, this wilderness wandering. I have found myself there at times. You probably know the desert, too. Like the people of Israel, we don’t much like wilderness wanderings. Remember their laments and complaints?
The Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Exodus 14:10-12 (NIV)
Other Biblical passages speak more favorably about walking in a desert wilderness and about finding there comfort and hope. One of my favorite passages is rather obscure, so I want to share it with you.
The Lord said, “Therefore, I will now persuade Israel, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. Hosea 2:14-23 (NRSV)
Finding ourselves wandering in a parched and barren desert can cause us to feel, not only exhaustion, but also exclusion. How bewildering it is when we are excluded, left alone to wander and feeling that no one is near, no one hears our laments, no one cares. My hope for you this day is that, whenever you have to wander in the wilderness, you will find on your way a friend beside you and at the end of your path, a door of hope.
I leave you with these words, a benediction spoken by a dear friend.
What is it about this statement from God and recorded by the Prophet Isaiah?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
This statement, or this promise, recorded in Isaiah 43 touches me to the core. It reaches into my soul that is so often parched by the events of life. As for the watercolor painting above, A Way in the Wilderness, you may have seen it before. I published it in this blog already. But this time, I would like for you to engage with me in a few moments of art appreciation. Consider the following questions.
What do you see in the painting?
What strikes you about it?
If you could choose one word or phrase or sentence in it that most relates to your life, what would you choose?
What do you see in the images and colors?
What do you see as the overarching theme of it?
What does it say to you? Or ask of you?
Okay! So maybe the painting says nothing to you! You’re not into art appreciation and it has no deeper meaning than paint to paper! I totally get that, but still, I want to tell you what it meant for me as I was creating it.
So much more than paint on paper, painting it was an emotional and spiritual release from my own wilderness. It was my way of learning to find rivers in my desert. Understand, it did not mean I could leave the desert and put the wilderness in my rear view. Instead, it allowed me to express my reality: that I live in the wilderness, but streams of river water quench my soul’s thirst in the desert.
That’s real and honest. A gut-punch of reality for me. Wilderness and desert terrain are common life habitations, for me and probably for you as well. I don’t live near the breezes of an ocean or on a ridge in breathtaking, snow-capped mountains.
I just live on a regular street in a regular town, and sometimes that can feel like wilderness.
What does that have to do with anything? Just this: During the times I feel as if I’m living in a desert wilderness, I need to remember the river. Or putting it another way, what I feel emotionally may be MY reality, but it is not THE reality.
It is not the ultimate reality of a life that is so filled with deserts and streams, storms and sunshine, smooth ways and rocky pathways, despair and hope, doubt and faith, sorrow and joy, death and life . . .
May your life be filled to overflowing with all of those things.
It’s part of human nature to sometimes want to hold on to the past, cling to the “good old days” and resist the change that moves us forward. Especially when days past were very, very good and prospects for the future are less good!
I, for one, find myself clinging to the past with all my might, looking at my past life as a full and exciting one and viewing my present as being a bit of an empty wilderness. I chalk it up to aging and retirement, but this sense of emptiness, sadness, is really more than that. I think it’s more about my ability to accept myself for who I am, who I will become in the future and, most of all, what I truly need in order to be at peace with myself and my world.
Our worlds change all the time, and change brings with it the question all of us must answer: Who are you in relation to this world you are now in? If before retirement I was a nonprofit executive and an advocate for victims of violence and abuse, who am I in retirement? When I no longer have to adapt to the leadership roles I used to be a part of, what “self” might I discover in these days of new things? When I no longer have to adapt to the role of pastor, what “self” might I find myself to be when there is no congregation to care for?
According to Isaiah, my go-to Prophet, God advises us not to remember “the former things” or “the things of old.” Instead God apparently makes a provocative statement and asks an even more provocative question:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.
Do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18 NRSV
I definitely had not perceived it, that new thing! In fact, I have been languishing about losing my “former things” for the last six years, not able to make the most of my present and certainly unable to envision a bright future. It might surprise even those who know me best how deeply disconsolate I have felt at times. Six years of languishing is not a good way to live. I made a gallant effort to make the best of it, but these six years took a toll on me in most every way — physically, emotionally and spiritually. My closest friends have ridden out this storm with me, so they know what I’ve been dealing with in clinging so closely to my good past and not being able to live into a good present.
And what is this “new thing” that God speaks of? What does the way through the wilderness take me and where are the winding, refreshing rivers in the desert?
Two weeks ago, one of those close friends gave me a passage of scripture printed on a piece of paper. I received it in quite a serendipitous way. Neither of us chose the passage (Isaiah 43:18-19). It ended up with me in a very random manner. But as it spoke of former things, old things and new things, it got my attention so completely that I pondered it several times a day for a week or so. I didn’t obsess over it or look up its context or attempt to exegete it. I simply pondered it in my heart in the quiet times.
This scripture is truly a lovely God-promise, filled with a gentle, healing grace. I appreciated it for that. I also appreciated it because its words gave me the gift of sacred pause. And in the sacred pauses it gave me, I realized that the crux of this matter is not not how I react to change or how I survive it. What I discovered is that this is not about what I can do or should do when my world changes. It’s about who I am when my world changes.
With that in mind, maybe every time my world changes, I will still be the person of deep faith that I have always been. Maybe I will greet “the new things” with gratefulness, knowing that God has made before me a way in the wilderness and has provided cool, rolling rivers in the desert. And even when my soul longs for days gone by, perhaps I will know that I will see God’s light on the path ahead of me, even in the dark, even through the wilderness, even as I feel the inevitable sorrow of letting go of all the former things I so deeply cherished. Even then, I will know that I do not walk alone.