At first, the wilderness appears wide open. It is unexplored. Who knows what wonders wait to be found.
When we first moved to Florida, we were eager to explore new roads. We caught glimpses of water – river or ocean – and we pressed on. But the river always remained hidden behind endless waves of Spanish moss. The ocean was a mirage, a blue spot on the GPS we could never quite reach.
The real ocean hid behind grassy bluffs or gated mansions. Park your car and pay your fee, and you’d find it. But it was not open to the wanderer. To those with a car full of kids who only wanted to drive and believe they were free.
Wilderness roads are straight roads. To meander without a plan across a network of straight lines will only lead to disappointment. There can be no circling back in some surprising way. There is only that moment of disenchantment, that moment when you agree it is probably best to turn around.
The wilderness looks like a spacious place. You cannot see the edges, no matter which direction you look. But there is no real spaciousness here.
In the wilderness, you wander but you are also hemmed in.
I grew up with the siren song let’s go for a drive. When my parents couldn’t take our squabbling for one more minute, they piled all four of us in the station wagon.
Where are we going? we always asked.
Crazy, my mother always answered.
Years later, heading out for a long drive became our favorite date. Especially in the spring. In the spring, you never knew when you might round a bend and find yourself slowing, slowing, and finally stopping to watch the wind dance in a field of bluebonnets. We’d park your pickup truck by the barbed-wire fence and roll down our windows.
All the better for watching flowers dance in a field we happily admitted we would probably never find again.
The roads are my favorite thing about my new home. This promised land.
They are narrow and curvy. They force a slower pace. You must stop at every bridge to let the car opposite cross first. You often find yourself caught behind horse-drawn buggies or herds of Sunday cyclists.
In this place, there is no scenic route. There are only the familiar roads, with their familiar beauty, and the turns you haven’t yet taken. The eighteenth-century farm you’ve never seen. The historic blacksmith shop you never noticed. The “ancient burial ground” half-hidden behind a brilliant maple tree. I lose miles wondering who might be buried in this “ancient burial ground.”
The daily chore of Kindergarten carpool is a thirty-five-miles-per-hour roller coaster. Gypsy Lane carves a path through the forest. Schoolhouse Road curves along the edge of a steep hill. I can see sheep and a fast-running creek down below.
Old stone barns and shabby farmhouses and that one crazy place with the alpacas. Every single day I forget where I’m headed.
Every drive, every errand, feels like a Sunday afternoon drive in God’s country.
On the hard days, and in the hard places, I sometimes resist gratitude. To “give thanks in all circumstances,” can feel like shutting my eyes. Like pretending.
But giving thanks has nothing to do with renaming a prison a spacious place. It is only the grateful acknowledgement that God never leaves us behind. He always comes back for the lost sheep. He always makes a way.
These days, I am looking back. I am remembering and giving thanks.
Thank you, Lord, for the hard, straight roads that led me here. Thank you for the wilderness.
Thank you, Lord, for the Promised Land. This spacious place where every road leads somewhere new.
I wrote a version of this post almost exactly two years ago. In early June of 2012, I had been wandering in a Florida wilderness for two years. I was tired of waiting. Tired of rootless living. I was six months pregnant and desperate to leave Florida. I wanted my baby girl to be born wherever home might be. But I had no idea where home might be.
Six weeks after our arrival in Pennsylvania, Elsa Spring was born. Today, that baby girl is rounding the curve on two years old. And we have come home. Every day I breathe “thank you.”
But it is Pentecost again, and I have realized something. We are lost and we are found, we are lost and we are found again, but we never truly leave this song behind. This beautiful ache of a song.
Pentecost Sunday is approaching, and I feel stuck in that room. Waiting. Asking this question: how did they survive the long, empty days between Jesus leaving and the Comforter coming?
How did they endure being lifted up by the joy of a promise believed only to drop again into the discouragement of yet another not yet?
And why the gap? Why did they have to wait at all?
We do know that the wait moved them to gather together. I imagine the promise was easier to believe when they could see the hope in one another’s faces. When they could pass around their Jesus stories, like a platter of bread and fish. Stories multiplied into hope. And faith.
And I imagine they worshipped. Sang and prayed.
Was this what it was all for? Was their worship the reason?
Did God wait, strain with holding himself back, because he wanted to hear their songs?
“Call to me,” he had once told them. “And I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).
Call. My husband tells me this word suggests something organized, something formal. Something created. Like a song. Like a poem. Something more than careless words tossed at the sky.
Maybe you don’t sing songs. Maybe you don’t write poems. But maybe you journal. Maybe you sketch. Maybe you take photographs or bake bread for the neighbors. Maybe you orchestrate elaborate finger-painted messes with the three-year-olds at church and maybe, just maybe, that is a call? A song? A cry of longing for more of God?
And maybe that is the point of it all. The point of waiting. The point of living. To add our call to the many others until a crescendo of sound and beauty and worship rises to heaven and all is unleashed.
Then, just as it was that Pentecost when God’s church was born, wind and fire reveal the great unknowns.
What have we all been waiting for? To hear the mysteries of God’s glory in a language we can comprehend.
Those unsearchable glories we never even knew to seek.
In late December, the seed and nursery catalogs began arriving. I dove in. When I came up for air, I tried to remind myself I was planning a vegetable plot, not an eight-hundred square foot formal rose garden.
It is easy to get a little lost in a pile of seed catalogs.
These are the days for rest, both for you and your garden. Unless you live in Florida.
I’ve heard it said that southern gardeners should take their winter break in late summer. Which is sort-of true. No one can grow tomatoes in Florida in August. But, it is also not true at all. You may give your vegetable beds a break, but the grass, the weeds, and those horrible invasive vines covered in thorns do not take a break. Unless you want your house to disappear back into the primeval jungle, you had better not neglect the August garden entirely.
I only gardened in Florida for two years, but I am still recovering. As it turns out, I need a good long break from working my bit of ground.
I need a season for rest. I need a season for dreams.
Rest can be painful. A persistant ache. Dreaming hurts.
I love winter in the north, but I don’t find it easy. I long for sunshine. For warm air on the skin of my arms. For flowers and green grass and those little breezes that feel like a caress. It is a season for rest, but this means it is also a season for waiting, for desiring, for pressing hard against the blunt edges of everything you dream about but do not yet hold in your arms.
It is a season of emptiness.
True rest means returning to God. But this is not as easy nor as pretty as it sounds. It is often anguish that sends us back.
Back to the source of dreams, back to the source of every good and new thing.
Back to the only One who can renew our hope.
On the first day of Advent, our church sanctuary was draped in evergreen.
There were no shiny ornaments. There were no red or green ribbons. I looked at those unembellished greens and heard them say, “Not yet. Not yet.”
Our home looks much the same. Undecorated, except for the white pumpkin still sitting on the front steps.
It wasn’t intentional. Thanksgiving turned so quickly to Advent, all in a rush of visiting friends and family, that I couldn’t quite keep up. I found the advent wreath in the basement. The boys circled it with greenery. And that was all.
The world outside our walls has thrown on the glitz and made room for the glitter and every other year I have been right there keeping time with that fast Christmas beat.
Not this year. Not yet.
For more than a week, I’ve sat with bare branches, four candles, and a pile of Christmas books. Every other year I have rushed to fill in the gaps, to embellish the plain, and to pile on more. This year the Advent cry Come, Lord Jesus, Come has echoed in bare corners and across empty tabletops.
And I have heard something in those echoes. Something that frightens me.
I have heard as if for the first time the story of how God came and his own did not recognize him. Of how he appeared in a story crowded with a greedy empire, an oppressed people, and long-whispered promises of deliverance and restoration. A good story. A true story. And yet …
Living within the density of their story, God’s own people were unprepared for the ways in which God himself would turn the story inside out and upside down. They were unprepared to meet the Truth face to face.
And this is what I have heard echoing in the empty spaces of my house: who am I waiting for? Will I know him when he comes?
Year after year, I have rushed to fill the empty space of my fireplace with stockings. I have moved quickly to cover bare branches with ornaments. I have penciled in the calendar; I have filled the closet with gifts.
Year after year, I have greeted the Christmas season with everything I already know and all that I have figured out. I have said Come, Lord Jesus, Come to a face I find comfortingly familiar. A face with no more power to shock.
This year should have been the same, but a severe mercy and a difficult grace intended differently.
Without meaning to, I have decked these halls with empty space.
My prayer today remains the same. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. But this time, emptiness has made way for echoes. Bare corners have left room for the unknown and unseen.
And I prepare to have my world turned upside down by the King whose name I call.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
And I am sorry. I wanted to give you metaphors that sing, but I have only this empty page and a blinking cursor. This is doubly unfortunate because today’s essay was intended for the column at Living the Story. In other words, today’s essay had a deadline.
I feel embarrassed by this blank page, as if it exposes something of which I am deeply ashamed. It seems to matter more than a blank page should.
This page is my life, I think. I rush and worry, trying to fill it up with words. I am terrified that I might run out of words.
Typically, I fill my empty pages quickly. So quickly, in fact, I rarely notice their emptiness. That this page has stayed blank longer than most, I blame on my ragged throat and tissue-burned nose. I blame it on my flexible work-from-home husband who was not, this week at least, able to work from home. I blame it on the baby girl whose cough matches my own.
She knows the baby signs for “milk” and “more” and “banana” but not for “sick.” I have to read it in the way she clings to me, the way she asks for food then tosses it down, the way she makes it impossible for me to live. Because isn’t my life composed of tasks ticked off, essays written, deadlines met? Which means today my life is not being lived. It means today this essay is not being written.
Or is it?
Perhaps even our blank pages have stories to tell?
I hope you’ll click through to read the rest of this one for the Living the Story column at the website BibleDude.
While you’re there, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know you stopped by.