WHEN I was little I lived in a small desert town in the middle of Uzbekistan. If you walked down our street and took a left, the road would take you straight to the base of some brown rolling mountains. These weren’t Instagram-able mountains. They were barren, covered in spiky thorn bushes that the local sheep would nonchalantly chew through with jaws of steel. Except for a brief couple of weeks in April during the rainy season when they’d explode into neon green, our mountains stayed mud-brown and sandy.
It wasn’t beautiful, but it was wild, and as children we couldn’t stay away. We’d spend days tromping around, exploring the barren foothills. We’d pack picnics and march to the top, pretending no one had ever set foot there before. Sometimes they hadn’t.
Even as a nine year old I knew it wasn’t pretty, but I accepted our wilderness for what it was— our wilderness. Because even though there was a small park just a few blocks from our house, I still found I learned so much more about life in the mountains. They were mine to roam and I loved them.
Looking back I don’t think I would be able to love those mountains now as much as I did as a child. They were ugly, looming, dry. I don’t think I’d be able to hear their invitation to be accepted and explored. I’d probably run away.
That’s what I’m tempted to do these days when I encounter wildernesses in my faith. When I run into the ugly and undeniable, I try to turn my face. When questions loom over me dark and muddy-brown, I’m tempted to pretend they don’t exist. They aren’t pretty. They raise more dust than I’d like, kicking up questions with their restless winds.
But I’m learning something. Sometimes when we ask Jesus to take us out of the wilderness, he turns to us and says “No, you go explore.”
I wonder what beauty and rugged truth we’d discover if we had the courage to wander inside our doubts and fears, instead of wishing them away. What glory would unfold itself if we climbed its peaks, raised our flags and shouted at the top of our lungs “I was here!”
I learned things in my wilderness.
I learned that you can find springs of water in the most unlikely places, like in the cave between the two highest peaks near our house. This was useful information, I’d tell my younger sister, in case we needed to run away from home, because now we knew we could survive in the wilderness with clean spring water and the shelter of the cave.
I learned abandoned dreams sometimes make the best playgrounds when we found an old forgotten cement factory one hill over from the park. We slid down dry cement sand hills in a completely empty lot, with huge factory towers looming over us. I’m glad we stopped and played here because when we tried to go back and find it the next day we couldn’t. I still secretly suspect it was a mirage.
I learned to find my way back home. When you’re nine and ten you feel like you can conquer anything and no distance is too far to run. But when the sun is setting and you’ve lost sight of anything familiar you got to remember how you got where you’re standing. I learned to track the steps that brought me out, and take those steps to get back home again.
“For the LORD your God has blessed you in all that you have done;
He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness
These forty years the LORD your God has been with you;
you have not lacked a thing.” - Deuteronomy 2:7
I’m not sure what your wilderness is today. Maybe you’re staring a giant dust cloud headed your way and you’re running for cover. Maybe you’re desperately looking for that spring water in someplace that feels impossible.
It’s possible to love the wilderness for what it is. When you’re not trying to treat it like the promised land, when you understand its place in your life you can embrace it. You can trust that you aren’t here alone, however dry and dusty it might be.
Today, on day three of this devotional, I’m going to ask you to lean into the dust storm. Go wander the foothills of these uncharted parts of your faith. You won’t go alone. You’re not here by accident, there’s purpose and beauty even here, here in your very own wilderness. Go explore.