Keep Going: A Message from the Wilderness
“Lord, break me and make me new.”
I started to pray this prayer a year and a half ago when I left my job as a classroom teacher to become a writer. I had no previous publications or qualification. All I had was a desire to become a published author, one poorly written manuscript for my first novel, and the support of my wife.
But my decision, like my prayer, was not only about the new life I hoped for. It was about undoing much of the life I left.
Over the span of two or three years, I became increasingly aware of something ugly growing within me. On the surface it felt like loneliness, frustration, and anger. As someone who always strives to exude joy and gratitude, these feelings were deeply discouraging. I didn’t understand where they came from. As time went on, I noticed an ever-widening distance between God’s promised peace and my own discontent. That distance stretched out wider and wider, like a great wilderness between the life I lived and the life I felt called to.
As I examined my heart more closely, I discovered those feelings of loneliness, frustration, and anger weren’t new. I could trace them back through years of my life, and, as I did, I discovered the fearful and self-centered mindsets that planted them: I had grown to think of faith as a series of rules to follow, my career as a series of tests to pass, and friendships as audiences to impress. These beliefs became the roots of my wilderness, the reasoning behind so many bad habits. In order to be new, I needed to break them. So I began praying that prayer - Lord, break me and make me new - and in doing so, I entered the wilderness.
This past Sunday, our readings spoke of such wilderness, and Pastor Jim pointed out that the wilderness is a place and time in which we become “free of the trappings of our comfort.” We often think of such comforts as indulgences. Sometimes we think of them as addictions. Sometimes we think of them as sins. But such comforts can also be coping mechanisms we use to mask pain and fear and trauma. They can be manners we use to politely excuse ourselves from uncomfortable situations. They can be deadlines we use to justify not tending to our heart’s true desires.
Such comforts often keep us going, but they do not lead us to God’s promise of deep, abiding peace. This is why the wilderness exists for us to cross. When we become stuck in old ways, God calls us into a season in which, as Pastor Jim put it, “we find life in a new way.”
The irony of the wilderness, however, is that when one is in the wilderness, nothing feels more empty and callous than encouragement like “God has a plan” and “Everything will work out.” Even though the promise of scripture is clear - “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35: 1-10) - that promise means little to the wanderer surrounded by sand. It feels like a carrot dangling on an impossibly far away stick.
God’s promise becomes meaningful only when we see others around us living it out, when people who have endured their own wilderness walk beside us and remind us such a season, though necessary, does not last forever. Only then can we reconnect with the hope for new life that spurred us into the wilderness in the first place.
Shortly after leaving the classroom, I attended a reading by author Lauren Groff at the Ivy Bookshop. During her talk, I attempted to ask a clever question about writing. Turns out it was so clever that it made absolutely no sense, and I was forced to stumble through a haphazard explanation of what I meant. The brief interaction left me feeling embarrassed and silly, like a child who accidentally wanders into a room full of adults. And yet, when I had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Groff after her reading, she showed me a tremendous kindness. She said, “That was a smart question,” and in that one sentence, she turned my moment of embarrassment into one of encouragement. Her generosity warms my heart to this day.
Then Ms. Groff asked me if I were a writer, and when I told her I aspired to be, she gave me two words that have sustained me like manna throughout my wilderness. She said, “Keep going.”
She was one of my first reminders that we do not endure the wilderness alone.
So I write to you now from the wilderness, and if you endure it now with me, I am writing to say, “Keep going.” Each day I fight against the fear that my hopes and dreams are not a part of God’s plan. The same imagination that gives me the ability to craft stories also gives me the anxiety to imagine everything going very, very wrong. Along the way, I have thought of countless little ways to motivate myself - songs, sayings, scripture - but I would be lying if I said any of them were the reason I still wander. They are just little carrots on little sticks. What keeps me going is the story. Not my story, but the fact that my story could be a part of God’s eternal story.
It’s an audacious idea, but it is the entire point: To enter the wilderness is to tie our story to God’s own. To enter the wilderness is to ask our source of radical, boundless love, “If I offer myself to you, what will you break away? How will you make me new?”
The only way to find out is to keep going.
Photo by Amine Mayoufi on Unsplash