Our awesome friend Jeff used to help my husband Dan and me lead youth group canoe trips when we were serving at churches in the Orillia area. Jeff might be part-superhero. He’s the kind of guy who can blast through marathons, or any number of other physical challenges, without breaking a sweat. This had ramifications for those canoe trips.
I had to learn this the hard way. Jeff suggested a “nice and easy” Saturday paddle for the group through the Minesing Swamp. There was an island about an hour into the swamp where we could pull in and have our lunch, and then we could have parents prepped to pick us up a little way down river.
Things didn’t go as planned. The water levels were lower than expected, which meant that there was no straight line available for paddling to the island. Instead, we had to wind our way in and through a maze of swamp weeds. As we went, the wind picked up. None of us was an experienced paddler, and a two-hour paddle turned into an all-day affair. We barely made it to the other side in time for supper. I had bruises on both legs from having braced myself so hard against the sides of the canoe for the hours of paddling into the headwind just to keep moving forward. I thought I was never getting out of that swamp.
Sometimes it feels like I’m still there, stuck in the maze of weeds, paddling with all my might into a headwind.
Over the course of the last few months, our Wednesday night service featured a sermon series called “Wilderness & Hope”. Thirteen different preachers—some ordained, mostly laypeople—reflected on various wilderness Bible passages. We began the series while in the middle of yet another COVID wave and lockdown, so it was easy terrain with which to identify: we’ve collectively been wandering in a pandemic wilderness for over two years now.
What was helpful about these sermons was the opportunity for people to draw on their own experiences, as well as the witness of Scripture, in order to pull together some touch points for our wilderness times that keep us attentive to the condition of our souls and to God’s presence with us along the way. We heard of journeys through illness, vocational despair, relationship challenges, not to mention a variety of ways that people had navigated our shared COVID reality.
This is at the heart of the spiritual tradition of the wilderness, and it runs as a constant theme from the earliest pages of Scripture through to the end. What looks like the wild and wandering circumstances that would have never been our choosing is actually ripe for finding out who we really are. Jesus threw himself into the rigorous discipline of a forty-day wilderness period post-baptism and prior to beginning his public ministry. I wonder if he knew that this wilderness was leading somewhere. I wonder if he felt like he chose the wilderness or if it found him.
More than that, I wonder what sort of wilderness he experienced prior to that 40-day fast. He was 30 years old, we understand, when he began his public ministry. This man who had so much ballyhoo about him when he was born was, by first-century standards, practically an old man by the time anything began to happen for him. Did he feel stuck? Did he wonder what he was doing or where he was going? Did he wish that something would happen? Did he fear that this something might not be what he wanted? In those 30 years leading up to when it all got started, did he know that being stuck was also part of it? That he had to have those quiet, unremarkable years in order to be clear enough about who he was that he could offer himself for the world?
Our youth group came out of that swamp a bit battered, and certainly exhausted, in body. We had chosen to go into the swamp, but we had no idea how grueling it would be to get out. Nonetheless, we all walked a little taller for having ultimately navigated the challenge. The group coalesced around that shared experience. I sometimes feel like I am still stuck in that swamp, which is helpful to remember when I feel like I am metaphorically flailing around in other swamps.
Not everyone’s wilderness experience—biblically or personally – leaves them as unscathed. The losses and wounds we experience in the wild and dangerous terrains we get thrown into are real, and the Bible makes no promises that it will be otherwise. What the Bible does promise, and what our different voices bore witness to, was God’s nearness, Jesus’s companionship, through it all. This means that even the most treacherous pathways can still be leading us closer to God, which means they are also leading us closer to knowing our own selves and the ultimate destiny of our lives more fully. This means that there is no darkness where God can’t shine light; there are no dead places out of which God can’t raise new life.