By: Nan Smith
I can still remember the reply I was given, when I first pitched my wilderness trip idea to the pastor of the church. I said “how about you and I take a canoe trip with high school girls into the wilderness lakes and woods of northern Minnesota?” She quipped back that maybe she better bring the Book of Worship just in case some of us didn’t make it back out and we needed a service.
Heading into the wilderness isn’t for the faint of heart, but intentionally leading a whole group of newbies into the wilderness borders on craziness. But to make a trip like this had always been a dream of mine. It was a passion that I had carried ever since I was a teenager and had canoed that area with youth from my church.
Truth be told, I have always had a love affair when it comes to wilderness. Whether it’s hiking through the wilderness area of Rocky Mountain National Park or scrambling over the rocks in Arches National Park or paddling canoes through the many lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, there is something about the wilderness experience that has always captivated me. Its beauty, with all its sharp edges, astounds me. It has always drawn me in.
Venturing into the wilderness can certainly generate excitement, but it can also be the stuff of nightmares. It can bring forth an attitude of expectancy or an attitude of dread or both. As such, the wilderness experience can be exhilarating for some and paralyzing for others. You see, you’re never quite sure what might happen in the wilderness. I suspect it’s the unpredictability that makes the wilderness so compelling for me.
So, we did end up leading that wilderness canoe trip for those high school girls and we all returned safely, but I could not have written the script for all the different experiences we had on that trip. It was an amazing trip! Suffice to say, it was life-changing for me and hopefully for those high school girls.
The wilderness landscape is one I know well. I am well-acquainted with how the wilderness can strip away all the ways we try to insulate ourselves against being vulnerable. The wilderness demands something of you and forces you to reach deeper than you thought you could. It has that way of providing clarity and can certainly bring about a change of perspective and an adjustment to what has priority in your life. For me, the wilderness has always had the ability to take me to the core of my being. I hold a deep respect for the wilderness.
I think of Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the desert wilderness and how challenging that must have been for him. The desert is a wilderness of such extremes. I imagine, it would have been a time that tempered his soul for the ministry he would provide, a time of strengthening and preparation for what was to follow, a time for Jesus to reflect and go deeper.
Now, of course, I have been speaking of wilderness in terms of a physical terrain, but as we all know, life events also have that way of throwing us into an internal wilderness. A lost job, a broken relationship, a devastating illness, or the death of someone we love can all serve to land us in the wilderness pretty quickly. And as I consider this season of pandemic that we have been weathering through, clearly, we are in the midst of a huge wilderness.
Individually and as the church, we are traveling through unfamiliar terrain. It can be an uncomfortable place – one that is filled with much grief, stress, and fear. However, it also holds possibilities and allows one to reflect and reevaluate and decide what needs to be held, what needs to be tweaked, and what needs to be blessed and released.
The emotional toll of this pandemic has been huge. Its entangled threads have impacted our lives in unimaginable ways. This wilderness terrain may not be beautiful, but I pray there have been moments of beauty to encounter. It has been challenging, but I pray there have been experiences of God’s grace. It has been unpredictable, but I pray your relationship with Christ has kept you grounded.
The pandemic is a wilderness unlike any I have ever encountered before. At times, it has seemed to be too much to bear. At other times, too painful to hold. At all times, I have longed for things to be different. But for now, I continue to try and embrace this particular wilderness and all the pain, fear, and uncertainty that it holds knowing that God walks through it with me.