Callings – Ah, Wilderness!
The little piece of paper posted at the trail head said this was a Grizzly Repopulation Area, you know, where they release a male and female Grizzly and tell them to go make Grizzlets. Twenty-five miles from the nearest pavement and almost knowing no fear, we plunged off through a mile and a half of meadow bristling with huckleberries (Grizzlies love them.) arriving at a mountain lake as pristine as when Adam took the family there for a vacation. It strained every muscle of hearing to pick up the soft breeze rustling the aspens and pines; otherwise the silence just roared. But wilderness beautiful at midday can turn deadly as the sun and the temperature go down. So we tore ourselves away and headed in.
In pursuing callings from God, He will steer us into places most people avoid whenever and however they can – places called wilderness. The biblical list is pretty awesome. There’s the nation of Israel (Exodus-Deuteronomy), Moses (Ex. 3), Elijah (I Kings 19), John the Baptist (Mt. 4), Jesus (Mt. 4) and Paul (Gal.1:17). We’re mistaken if we think we hear God most clearly in mountaintop moments; they’re both precious and often too overwhelming to process. He actually does His best work in wilderness for two reasons. Times in wilderness usually are more drawn out than mountaintops. Serious business with God requires thinking and that takes time – the serious leisure found in wilderness. Second, the isolation of wilderness disallows distractions; God has our undivided attention. Just try to make serious strides toward God in the flow of daily lives. It’s embarrassing how quickly we get turned aside to trivial stuff and distracted, termites that eat our time and shred our desire.
Wildernesses where God does serious retooling have a smell to them. First, it seems like God is far away, completely absent. The utter aloneness of these times stands as both the defining characteristic and the main reason we avoid them. But nothing could be farther from the truth. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” gets bad press in our comfort loving emotion driven culture. We’ve “pretzelized” it to describe everything from clinical depression to the Slurpee machine going dry at 7-11. Actually reading John, we learn that the “Dark Night” comes as an honor from God. It means God intentionally withdrawing all conscious sense of His presence and activity. To what end? Grad school in walking by faith, boot camp. It costs nothing to sniff curiously or play at calling. Pursuing one sports a price tag. Only in the heat of drought do the roots of both plant and soul stab down through the hardest clay. Following Christ into the world demands muscle of spirit built-in only one place – wilderness. God absent? God Himself oversees the process with an extremely clinical eye, engineering circumstance and pushing tolerances with exquisite timing and a quick trigger finger. After Jesus pushed through exhaustion, dehydration and spiritual warfare, angels came on Him like scum on a pond.
Playing off the last couple of sentences, wildernesses appear to be random but come carefully timed. Mark 1:12 picks up that after Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit drove Him into the wilderness; this couldn’t wait until later and it came with insistent urgency and force. A “worst” time for us could be the perfect time for God.
Our attitude in wilderness makes all the difference in the world. To lose our heads in physical wilderness could cost our lives. Wilderness does not play nice with those who disrespect it. To grumble and complain, sulk in self-pity, lose ourselves in shallow distractions or make every attempt to avoid these altogether not only short circuits something God was serious about in our lives but deepens our cravings for the taste of our own easygoing deadness. Emotions will drag us into this without a whimper; our wills need to drop into four-wheel drive knowing God means something serious especially when every feeling in us denies it. In wilderness, we keep our antennas up.
What in blazes can God have in mind in these desolate places of the soul? Sometimes it’s a plain old cleaning out. I walked down a street in a college town when a prof threw out his arm to stop me. “I don’t want you to get hit.” The bar we were about to pass was a big student hangout. Every morning when they opened, they never fooled with a vacuum cleaner or brooms; they just hosed the place out front to back. Sitting helpless and blind for three days is not my idea of a good time (Paul, in Acts 9:9, didn’t know it would be just three days.) But Jesus hosed a lot of mess out of that man. Wasn’t God good to give him three days off with no distractions (like seeing) to get it done?
Sometimes God will shut us away from everything to show us something completely new. God took a throng of slaves descended from Jacob, peeled the fingers of a world power like Egypt from their throats and led them into the wilderness of Sinai. What did they know of Him, Who He was, how to approach and serve Him? Forty years, from the Exodus to the Jordan River, in land so arid that God would have to provide all the food and water would make them the People of God. Cold desert nights would ring with the praises of God and the desert sand would drink the tears of their repentance.
When God decides to speak He can explode like a bull out of a rodeo chute. Listening to John the Baptist was like kissing a tornado of fire. Where did he come from? He wore sackcloth and ate bugs (They’re high in protein). What could have happened out in the wilds to craft a vessel like this? We’ll never know. But we do know that John was marinated in the fiery holiness and love of God for a long time. Sometimes, in wilderness, God wants to “hog” us to Himself. From there…who knows?
Jesus. Forty days. Fasting and probably dehydrated. Satan. The big test. Faithfulness and obedience sharpened to edges unknown to human experience up to now. Vision fought for and therefore sharper than before. Toughness to be misunderstood, slandered, betrayed, rejected, tortured and killed. Wilderness.
What do these look like? C.S. Lewis famously said, “God whispers in our pleasures but shouts in our pain.” Depression – it’s interesting to see how many notable Christians throughout history dealt with it. Check out “Darkness Is My Only Companion” by Kathryn Greene-McCreight and “Bright Days. Dark Nights.” by Elizabeth Skoglund. Hearts and Minds Books will give you the “Geezer” discount 20%) if you ask. Illness and pain throw open the doors to the deserts and/or gardens inside all of us. Don’t waste them. (See “Coping” by Elizabeth Skoglund. Out of print but can be scored as used.) The persistent stress of unchanging circumstances (roommate or housing issues, family, school, work) in life get overlooked as nothing more than aggravations. Maybe they shouldn’t. Fingernails across the backdrop of our lives might have God’s thumb on them. Relationship breakups and bruised friendships. Beyond real hurt and blaming others and ourselves, is there something else we should step back and see?
Sometimes it’s simpler. Picture a weekend on most campuses in early February with no one around and the sports teams out-of-town. Our roommate asked if we wanted to go home with them (one of the great things about roommates – home cooking and we’re not at home). We said “no” but wish we hadn’t. It’s Friday or Saturday night and we sit in our room.
Maybe we’re sitting alone somewhere else on campus. Take a walk through your library on Friday and Saturday night. Try it for a couple of weeks taking note of the faces we see repeatedly. Sure, we’ll hit the library on weekend nights if we face a deadline for a paper we’ve procrastinated over. But most weekend nights? Why would we do that? Because otherwise, we have nowhere else to go and no one else to be with – or we would be. Our campus library probably doesn’t have sand on the floor but for some, it’s desolate wilderness (and maybe an outreach point for our Christian group).
My wife and I had just hoofed it across a chunk of Nova Scotia to sit and watch big waves pound on big rocks. A hundred yards offshore, a large seat floated on his back watching us. On the way back, a guy wheezed up to us on the trail and gasped, “Is it worth it?” Are they, are wildernesses engineered by God worth it to mine this thing known as His calling? People who emerge from wilderness come out exhausted, bruised and scratched up, aching joints and feet, strap cuts to the shoulder, maybe more than a little dehydrated – and more deeply alive than when they went in. To bypass or avoid these, we miss a lot.
Some cool stuff for you to check out. As I’ve said in other posts, one of the best things cooking on campus is the rise of student theological journals. Some of the people who graduated from Dartmouth decided they didn’t want to stop writing and Fare Forward is the result. John Mulholland and others at Redeeming Reason chronicle some serious ongoing intellectual work in the Chicago area. Many will love their articles and resources.
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Please return your seats to the upright position and return the infrared night vision goggles to the attendant as you exit to the rear. See you next post at geezeronthequad.com.