Lessons From The Wilderness

The Wilderness of Judea

The Wilderness of Judea

I have been backpacking in several different wilderness areas and have learned much from the experience. But here I am speaking about a different kind of wilderness. I believe as we follow Jesus, He will at some point take us into the wilderness, not a physical one, so much as a circumstantial one. It could be a significant loss or a period of terrible uncertainty. It could be a time of spiritual dryness or one of seemingly unbearable suffering. Whatever the wilderness, it is His way of taking us out, away from the props and distractions we have used to manage life, and teaching us to rely on Him alone.  The pattern of the wilderness can be found in so many of the great Biblical stories, from Abraham to Paul, from Moses to Jesus Himself.

The last three years have honestly been such a wilderness for me, but one into which I know I was called. So now I want to offer the three big lessons I’ve learned there.

1. Our true identity is often found in the wilderness. In a world where we are known by our work or by the image we project, it’s so easy to live out of a false identity. But only God knows who we are, and only He can give that to us. For me, my identity seemed incorrigibly bound to being a high school teacher and coach. I couldn’t imagine being someone else. But as I left that three years ago, I realized that it was a false front I had created. To leave it felt frightening and then devastating. And yet in the wilderness, God has repeatedly met me, speaking to me about who I am in His eyes as a beloved son and what I am supposed to do with my life.

2. Something else happens in the wilderness: we don’t realize that God is all we need until He is all we have. To enter the wilderness, we must leave behind all of our God-substitutes—the addictions and petty idols. Leaving behind a secure, paying job and entering the fray of starting a ministry has exposed my inordinate dependence on money. Really, money acted as a substitute father I went to for comfort and security, but the loss of a steady income has opened my heart to the One who is our true Father. With finances still unpredictable, I am learning how trust, for God will provide where He has called—and He has.

3. One other thing also seems to happen in the wilderness: we learn to let God write the story of our lives. With the fall of man, we compulsively attempt to author, direct, and play the lead role in our stories. Frankly, it's always a disaster. And yet the addiction to our self-consumed script writing dies hard. But it can die in the wilderness. Letting God write the story of my life has meant letting go of many dreams and plans. I have had to lay them down and wait for Him to open the doors of ministry. It has been infuriating at times, confusing at others, but ultimately freeing. To let God write the story means that I can now follow as His son without bearing that burden.

The wilderness usually feels like a place of cursing at first. It certainly did for me, as I have weathered both anxiety attacks and depression, but eventually it becomes one of incredible blessing. This has been the experience of the saints down through the ages, and it is the promise of God: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (I Peter 5:10).

You can count on it in your own wilderness.

I know I am.


Whatever You Do, Stay Under the Waterfall

When I was in my mid 20's, I took a group of junior high students on a backpacking trip one summer on the Cumberland Plateau. It was unbearably hot and dry. There was even one moment when dehydration and heat exhaustion became a valid concern. But what I remember most from the trip is what happened when we made it back to the base camp. There was a fast flowing stream nearby that plummeted over a stairstep of rocks covered in moss, creating an inviting place of repose. I remember getting in and lying back in the moss and letting the water run on top of me, over me, and around me—clear, cold water! I have never felt anything quite like it in my life, the utter relief of that waterfall after days of sweat, dust, and grime.

That waterfall has become the key to understanding one of the most puzzling verses in the Bible for me. Here it is: "Just as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love" (John 15:9). Jesus is speaking to His disciples about the life He wants them to live, one of staying in His love. He goes on to explain that we stay there by loving others as we have been loved by Him (vs. 10-12). For the last twenty years, I have struggled to grasp what it really means to stay in His love. What does this look like to feel the love the Father has for the Son and then live there? And why is that so hard to experience?

Why? Because my heart has stayed in so many other places: shame, anger, fear, envy, pride, apathy, deadness. It also has been hooked to so many idols, first being seduced and then imprisoned by them. How am I even to approach this life, one that is central to all followers of Jesus? How was I to feel that love and then offer to others? How are any of us to do this?

The answer was the waterfall.

One day while I was wrestling with this verse again, Jesus brought up the memory of the waterfall, and it all connected. Yes, this is how it works. My job is just to stay under the waterfall and let the water of His love keep flowing over me, in me, and through me. Then as I sit there, I am to offer that water to those around me. The image became not just a defining one, but a healing one. I could go there and sit in the water that never runs dry, the water of His presence and love, available at any moment of any day.

But then something else happened. I began to see myself not just offering water to others, but picturing friends and family sitting under the waterfall with me. They too need to be in that waterfall. Whatever we can offer others with our words, time, or gifts is never enough. It’s just a small cupful. Our job is to offer it and then encourage them to get under the waterfall with us. 

For we are all dry, parched souls—empty and longing. Our hearts are all distracted, deceived, and seduced. We all desperately need that waterfall, the waterfall of His love.

So whatever you do, stay under the waterfall.

How do you start to do this? Just ask Him: “Jesus, how can I remain in your love?” Keep asking until He shows you how. 

Trust me, He will.



Is It Really Worth It To Go To Church?

It was one of those Sunday mornings. After walking with Heidi and eating breakfast, we got in the car to drive to church. Fatigue suddenly hit me from the emotional and physical drain of the week. I could feel mounting resistance at the thought of sitting through church, trying to stay awake and engaged. Was it really worth it to go? 

If church attendance is a part of your life, you have probably had similar thoughts. There are those moments when it just seems easier to stay at home, sit in a comfortable chair, and read the Sunday paper. It was just one of those mornings for me, but I didn’t turn the car around. Perhaps because I knew better, or perhaps because Heidi was in the car. In the long run, it didn’t matter why because of what happened next.

No, nothing spectacular occurred during church. There were no Aha moments or emotional breakthroughs. What happened was all the more amazing because it was so gentle, so unobtrusive. As the worship began, one song focused around the Lord’s desire to be our strength—yes, Lord, even when I feel so depleted. When an old hymn about the church came up next, I looked around at everyone there and felt a quiet but distinct connection to them. Yes, I am a part of their lives, as they are of mine. Then I recalled the saints throughout the ages who had all trod the same path of faith and obedience. We are all connected in a long procession of faith, something so much bigger than our individual life circumstances.

During confession, there was a time of silence, deepening with His presence as it progressed. Then as one of the elder’s prayed publicly, I let his intercession wash over me. With the preaching of the Word, I let the old truths soak into me. And when the benediction came, I raised my arms to receive the love of the Father, the love we all need.

What happened to my fatigue, my resistance? It just vaporized in the joy and energy of being in the presence of the saints. “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them" (Matt: 18:20). Yes, that's the energy of Sunday morning. That’s why I need to be in church. That’s why we all need to be a part of His body, no matter how sad or difficult or even hurtful churches can be at times.

That’s where the life is because that’s where He is. Only Jesus makes the difference, but what a difference it is!



"I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

No, I'm not talking about my wallet, although it certainly could be the case! This tag line from an old U2 song has become a chorus that continues to haunt me. What do I mean?

It seems as if all of my life I have been looking for something and not finding it. Coming to Christ as a teenager was what I desperately looked for and needed at the time. But the irony is that Jesus hasn't dampened the longing to keep looking. He has only intensified it.

Sometimes when I walk with Heidi, I feel there is something in the sturdy oak or freshly cut grass calling out to me, something hidden yet very much alive. The same thing happens when I see a streaked rose sunset or a sweeping panorama from a mountaintop. I relish the beauty I see, but there is always a boundary, a block, as if there is something else there I am not allowed to enter, something latent, yet very real. 

The same thing can happen in my daily interactions. The ordinary laughter of the moment will turn into a window from which I gaze out into a world of unbounded joy. I want to enter that world, only to find it locked and the vision fading as quickly as it appeared. At other times, conversations can turn into the depths of the heart. As I hear the sadness or pain of others, my empathy becomes tinged with longing. I sense a glory underneath—buried, yet waiting to get out.

Finally, I look at my own life's work and the journey of my heart over the last 58 years. Yes, there has been so much accomplished, so much transformation. Yet, it all feels like fragments I cannot hold in my hands, unfinished stories waiting for resolution. 

I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

And then I open the Bible and read this: "We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship" (Rom. 8:23). There it is. We groan as we wait. We long as we look. Paul says the longing is normal, the work of the Spirit, and our calling now is to wait. But for so long, I either let the longing become a ravenous hunger that consumed or a buried desire I suppressed. In contrast, all of our lives in Christ are supposed to be one growing ache, washing over us and through us as we eagerly wait for heaven.

When that day comes, the waiting will be over, and I'll find at last what I have been looking for. It will be better than any of us could have ever imagined.

Yes, come Lord Jesus, come!