Friday, April 25, 2008
Out of the Wilderness
There are few things in our lives that are more terrifying than “wandering in the wilderness.” The feeling of being lost…out of control…unsure of absolutely everything…
This wandering is often referred to wistfully by those who’ve never personally experienced it. Those who’ve been home safe for many years may still shudder - or they may have rewritten the experience into a tale somewhat akin to Swiss Family Robinson...or Lost if they aren't a million years old. (Do you remember reading the book, Hatchet ? I loved that book).
But those who are presently wandering...
Have you ever been actually lost in the wilderness - for real, not metaphorically? I have. At first you’re calm enough, “surely if I just keep going this way I’ll get out of here.” Then you start wondering if you’ve seen that tree before. Soon the panic is clawing at you and you’re struggling to keep your breathing even – especially if there is someone “not lost” with you. Every imaginable worst case scenario is now running through your head and hope is beginning to seem like a quaint relic of another time and place.
I began working on this post in January of 2007. For over a year it sat as a draft waiting for the day that I felt able to come back to it. As I prepare to hit publish, I feel like it could sit and cure for another year. It still doesn’t quite say what I want…But I think that posting these thoughts will enable me to take one more step toward grasping their significance.
When we moved to the New Orleans area in April after “the storm” many people here looked at us like the hired guns; reinforcements if you will. We were supposed to be full of energy, excitement and optimism. In truth, by this point were already well into the most difficult season in either of our lives. We had spent 9 months wandering in the wilderness waiting for God’s calling. During this time I strung together 9 different jobs in an attempt to stay in North Texas. When the call finally came it was undeniable. And it was not at all what we were expecting…
During our first year in Mandeville, Rachel was repeatedly drawn to the story of Abraham. We often talk about Abraham’s calling…a call to GO which as Rachel began to discover, was the beginning of his difficulty rather than the result of and blessed release from struggles.
What is wilderness wandering like? Fear, insecurity, rummaging and foraging for food; trying to appreciate the potential benefits and dangers of this alien flora and fauna; learning to find shelter in new ways.
There are indeed few things more terrifying and difficult than wandering in the wilderness…except for wandering in the desert. When you find yourself in a barren and desolate wasteland you begin to think longingly of the underbrush, poison ivy, torrential rains and mosquitoes…well, maybe not mosquitoes.
You think about the lush and wonderful environment that allowed for foraging, shelter, and of course water. The desert makes the wilderness seem like civilization. I haven't done a thorough study, but from what I can tell Scripture seems to use wilderness and desert interchangeably to refer to a place of trial and testing. So I'm not offering this metaphor as a commentary on Scripture so much as noticing how the metaphors of Scripture provide the foundation for commentary on my life.
There is a scene from the movie Lucky Number Slevin that I think is wonderful. Slevin is “visiting” the Rabbi (why is he called "The Rabbi” you ask? …Because he’s a Rabbi - stay with me here) and mentions his bad luck. The Rabbi wisely points out that luck is a matter of perspective. Yesterday Slevin did not owe someone a large sum of money, yesterday his life wasn’t in danger. But did Slevin appreciate his good fortune? Nope. Not until his fortune took a turn for the worse. “People always want what they had” the Rabbi points out.
What do we do when we've come out of the wilderness and into the desert? When the wilderness suddenly looks good? What do we do when the desert sun is blinding us?
I’m not sure.
I do know that while being lost in the wilderness may have seemed bleak, the desert quickly teaches us to appreciate it…which begs the question, what will we find ourselves learning to appreciate tomorrow?
After wandering out of the wilderness and into the desert it doesn’t do much good to think about bounty of the forest nor the barren nature of the present locale. It doesn’t do much good to long for the security of slavery in Egypt, to long for Ur, or to remember the Alamo. All that matters is finding shelter; your choices in the desert don‘t go much beyond finding an oasis, get yourself discovered by some Bedouins or die. Philosophy and reminiscing are best suited for Trinity Hall over a pint of Murphy’s Red…
But look at what life has come from the desert – prophets and patriarchs learned to depend on God; often this deadly and harsh landscape was refuge and sanctuary for faithful people whose lives were in danger.
Life coming from the desert seems paradoxical at best. But it fits. There is only one who has the power to bring about life from death, bounty from barrenness, blessing from curse. One does not emerge from the desert unchanged. The fire-tested life is a full life, it just doesn’t feel very full until AFTER the period of testing.
The initial exposure reveals a harsh, barren desolation. But over time one realizes there is a tenderness beneath that harsh exterior and what was first seen as barren and desolate is eventually cherished as beautiful. It is beautiful because of what it reveals. It is valuable because of what it forges. The bitter shrubs of the desert become sweet and fragrant flowers. But not quickly, not for a while.
Perhaps there is room for hope in the desert. Maybe there’s reason for rejoicing when the wilderness looks good…