Into the Wilderness
I’ve been on a bit of a sabbatical for the past 6 months, moving from one wilderness to another to yet another. Three years in wildernesses of one kind or another, following decades of wildernesses of different kinds. It has been a refreshing experience. If you’ll forgive a bit of self-involvement, I’ll tell my recent story in order to make some observations that have profoundly changed the way I look at life. Perhaps there will be something of use for someone else.
Six months ago I sent my son on a mission. I was jobless and had been for over two years. We’d had periods of great difficulty during that time, including a stretch of six months in which we had $0 income on emptied savings reserves. We prayed for everything we needed after paring down what we needed to the bare essentials. It was one of the best experiences of my life and taught me better than anything could that God wants to bless me, that he will speak to me, and he will sometimes send others who listen to the spirit to do it.
One month I was inspired to pray for the generosity of others, and throughout the month I found envelopes with cash in them – on my windshield, stuck in my door, handed to me by the bishop – bags of groceries set inside my kitchen, flats of flower starts, and people looking at me earnestly and clasping my arms at church, whispering pleas about how they could help. My heart broke a little each time – that heart that was set on my own self-sufficiency – and I became better able to trust both God and the people around me.
One month I was inspired to ask for help from my bishop, and he gave it without reservation. And with that big lump of pride that I swallowed I found that the lump of fear I carried in my throat disappeared. And I had to ask several times before the lump entirely disappeared.
One month I taught the Brother of Jared in Gospel Doctrine and as I prepared I wondered with awe what it would be like to have the Lord ask me how I would like a problem to be solved. I was looking at an upcoming housing expense that I had no idea how to meet, and with a great sense of peace I felt the Lord ask me exactly that question. I had begun fasting, and with wonder I spent the first 24 hours considering what I would ask. I settled on the way to meet my housing that I felt would meet his approval, and fasted two more days. The phone rang on the third day and a friend who had moved out of state said that they had recently been repaid their Do-Good money and felt that it should go to me. With wonder I reflected that it had come just as I had requested, and that no other mortal had known what I had asked. Truly, God heard my prayers, but more than that, he was not displeased with me, something that I have struggled all my life to believe as my life has unrolled in its discomfiting unconventionality.
One month as I prayed about our expenses, I was inspired to ask my son who was preparing to serve if he would give all of his meager savings to help us meet our obligations. I recoiled, because not only was that money sacred, but he had only been able to find 5 weeks worth of work, and he had carefully saved all but his tithing. The feeling persisted, and with my head bowed, I asked the unthinkable. He responded with grace and faith and gave me all. When his time to serve came, my mother stepped forward out of the blue and asked for the privilege of fully supporting him on his mission while others stepped forward offering to help with his clothes before he left. What had been impossible for me was made possible by others. This last week he wrote to me, a private and sacred letter of gratitude, telling me that I might feel small for that experience, but it had given him something priceless, something that had built a strength within him that nothing else could have.
The Monday after I dropped that son off at the MTC, I started a job at barely over minimum wage, after working for years at consulting jobs that engaged a variety of developed skills. And I felt good about it. But it required a depth of humility that I had not previously explored, and it was hard. For the first time in my life, instead of wanting more from me than I felt I could muster, my situation asked nearly nothing of me, and wanted me to keep myself to myself and merely be a body in a spot. Weeks stretched in front of me filled with the same indifference. So I began riding my bike and praying for good health. I lost 45 pounds, my arthritis pain and asthmatic wheezing subsided, and then my work situation began to slowly improve. More responsibilities came my way. Here and there, things almost imperceptibly changed.
And so the blessings rolled on, manna, on the ground daily as we made our way through the changing wilderness.
Then, just when our lives seemed to be stabilizing, the word of the Lord came to me without warning: plan to move in September. It was only days before the month began. I paused and prayed, unwilling to fling my family over yet another cliff without being assured of the source of the thought, but it was certain, quiet, and unblinking. Because I have not had the privilege of owning my own home since I traded my home for my children in my divorce 12 years ago, I was free to give my notice for 30 days, so I did. We spent the month moving our belongings into storage units and cleaning what had been our home for 4 years.
And we had no idea where we were going to live.
Anxiety began to creep into my careful self-calming when only days remained in the month. Should I extend the time in the house? An undeniable stupor of thought would come every time I had that thought. In frustration, I was describing the situation to my oldest married daughter, and I heard myself say, “I guess I’m going to have to farm the kids out!” My grandmother was farmed out during The Great Depression (in our family, those words are spoken capitalized). Many families did that when they couldn’t afford to feed the children. Again, I recoiled, but with those words hanging in the air, I knew it was the answer, and peace settled over my soul.
So I again asked the unthinkable, and my ward family came forward with a largess that overwhelmed me. Everyone seemed to have a place for one of my children. Before the words I spoke that evening had settled out of the air, my oldest daughter had a place arranged for me in her own new home.
And so we began a journey into another wilderness, separate from one another, waiting as we searched for a home in our dear ward to become available. My children have felt equally the testimony that, though this is as unconventional as all of our life together has always been, it feels right. We are bonded to our ward family in even more intimate ways now as people have, without fear of exposure, opened their lives to us. The kids and I have talked often in the past few weeks about how our new home will have a guest room and I think consecration will mean something tangible to them. My heart swelled when my next son, also preparing to submit his mission papers in the next few weeks, gave all of his meager mission savings to a friend who has contracted hepatitis and whose family is stretched too thin to pay her medical expenses.
The wilderness has changed us all.
I’ve too long held my breath, waiting for hard times to pass, or gritted my teeth and driven resolutely through it. There is a rigidity that lodges in our spines, shortening our muscles and making us stiff and pained, when we hold our breath too long or often. While the shortest way out truly is through, and the wilderness is obviously not a place where any of us want to pause and set up housekeeping, there is great worth in the being there, not just the having been there.
I am a different person. I am quieter. I am happier. I am more aware of what God is doing. Like leather worked and soaked and beaten and dried, then worked and soaked and beaten and dried, I am stronger and more supple, and I think possibly, more resilient and more useful. But in addition, both I and my children have been protected from significant things, things that are consuming children in this time, while we have been in the wilderness. My children are also quieter, happier, and more aware of what God is doing. In the Book of Revelation the woman is driven into the wilderness for her protection, to save her and to save her child from the dragon. The metaphor is for the Church and the saving ordinances it harbors, but the metaphor has become mine as well.
I know that woman. I’ve peered from the safety of my own wilderness and watched the dragon rage. If the wilderness is your next journey, perhaps you will take courage in this view from the other side.