Like so many people, when I was in grade school, I had to memorize and perform poetry. And like so many students along the way, in the fifth grade, I memorized and performed the words of Robert Frost, from probably his best-known poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
(Robert Frost, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, 1922)
But it has been his other famous words that have come to my mind recently, as I have been thinking about wilderness, even though its description is not what we normally think of as wilderness:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, 1916)
In the month-long celebration of Season of Creation, observed around the world in September 2020, one of the themes was the Wilderness. When I googled “wilderness” I was not surprised to find the following words to describe what many think of when we think of the “wilderness.”
–an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region
–a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town
–an outside area in which plants are left to grow naturally or in a messy way—this description would fit the pollinator garden I keep working at in a particular flower bed at my home!
One particular definition I like the most because it is so detailed: an area of land that has not been used to grow crops or had towns and roads built on it, especially because it is difficult to live in as a result of its extremely cold or hot weather or bad earth.
When we think of the wilderness, we do not usually think of a place of beauty, but of a place of hardships—a place that is wild and challenging and therefore, a place that is less traveled. And yet, the wilderness places of this world are some of the most interesting and beautiful places that exist. These often, untouched places, or little touched places, connect with something deep within us, helping us to think about places in our lives that possibly, we would rather leave alone. However, when we do face these wilderness places of our own lives, we discover beauty and strength and hope and growth and we are glad that we traveled that way and for the holy adventure that these places of wilderness bring.
The Bible contains many stories of wilderness places. Time and again it seems that prophets and leaders were driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, to wander, perhaps to be tested, perhaps to contemplate or hear the voice of God in their lives.
Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. The Feast of Booths is a Jewish celebration which, this year, began on October 2nd and recalls the ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness and their deliverance.
Elijah and Elisha both wandered in the wilderness.
The prophet Isaiah described Israel’s return from their exile in Babylonia as a journey through the wilderness.
John the Baptist is describe as living in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey.
Probably the story of Jesus in the wilderness is the story we know best and think about most. The Gospel of Mark gives the short version of the story. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan River and the presence of God, through the Holy Spirit, was visible upon him—descending like a dove upon him with these words: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
What a beautiful moment—to feel the presence of God and be called Beloved!
But the moment doesn’t last long and along with Jesus, the narrative and the Holy Spirit drives us into the wilderness. The Common English Bible uses the word “forced.” The Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. And while Mark doesn’t give us the details of the 40 days of Jesus’ wilderness experience, it does give us enough details to make us convinced that this is not some place we want to be very often.
In this wilderness are wild animals, which we can imagine as dangerous. There is no shelter. There are no provisions. We are told that the angels cared for Jesus, but we are not told that until the very end, just after we receive the information that in the wilderness is the Evil One and there in the wilderness are temptations, meant to turn Jesus from his calling, which was, in part, to be a voice of hope and grace and mercy in this world and to be Emmanuel—God with us.
So, even in this brief passage of Mark, we get the idea that the wilderness is not safe, but full of danger and evil and it is not somewhere that we want to be. What we do not understand, immediately, is that while the wilderness can be a place of trial, it is also a place of spiritual renewal—of finding that God is with us in the midst of whatever we imagine the wilderness to be.
The long length of time that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness gave them time to remember who they were as God’s people and to come together in strength as God entered the Promised Land with them.
Elijah’s time in a cave—a wild place, where no one ever wanted to be—was a time when he heard the still, small voice of God, reminding him that he was not alone and giving him strength for what he needed to do.
The time in the wilderness for Jesus was a time when he discovered his own gifts and strengths and passions for his ministry. Those gifts and strengths and passions helped him to withstand the temptations and to realize that he was not alone in the wilderness, nor would he be in any challenge that came his way.
Throughout the scriptures when wild places are mentioned, even when they are mentioned as difficult places, there is always the presence of God there and that makes the wilderness beautiful.
In the 41st chapter of Isaiah, God is speaking to Israel, God’s servant, about a wilderness and the possibilities that are in the midst of the wilderness. Here the understanding of servant is one chosen by God, to bring about hope and peace in the world. One of the most significant promises that comes from God in this passage is “Do not fear. I will help you.” In verse 10 are these words:
Don’t fear, because I am with you;
Don’t be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
I will surely help you;
I will hold you with my righteous strong hand. (Isaiah 41:10, CEB)
I know these words as the basis for the second stanza of a hymn, whose authorship is still in dispute— “How Firm a Foundation.” These words have sung in my heart for a long time and given depth to the words of God, later on in the chapter, where a wilderness is described, but with God in the midst of it, the wilderness bursts into life:
The poor and the needy seek water, and there is none;
Their tongues are parched with thirst
I, the Lord, will respond to them;
I, the God of Israel, won’t abandon them.
I will open streams on treeless hilltops
And springs in valley
I will make the desert into ponds
And dry land into cascades of water.
I will plant in the desert cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive trees;
So that they will see and know
And observe and comprehend
That the Lord’s hand has done this,
And the holy one of Israel has created it. (Isaiah 41:17-20, CEB)
The first time I saw Dolly Sods Wilderness in Dry Fork, WV, was on a cold, cloudy, desolate day. I had no idea that a state, so full of forests and trees could also have a place that looked so barren. My first response were questions: How could anything be so plain and desolate? How could anything be so grey?
It was wild.
I sat on a rock and looked out on the horizon. I was cold and miserable.
And, I was smitten.
There was something about the wildness of Dolly Sods that spoke to my soul. There was something about the wildness of Dolly Sods that suggested to me to wait and watch. There was something about the wildness of Dolly Sods that spoke to me of the presence of the Holy One.
I watched the sky change over and over that day. The sun came out and shown on spectacular vistas. Then clouds came by and cast shadows.
The foliage was unexpected. As I patiently waited and watched, colors appeared, and beauty was all around me.
There was water in that wilderness that sparkled when the sun came out from behind the clouds. The rocks were shades of grey I had never noticed before.
Windswept evergreens stood bravely and took my breath away.
I could not leave. I wanted to stay because I knew that even in that wild, desolate place, the presence of God was all around me, showing me colors and plants and shapes and beauty, I had never seen.
Since that first visit over 25 years ago, I have gone back often. It is my goal to take photos of Dolly Sods in all season, actually in every month of the year. It calms me, gives me a place to think and to pray and to feel and experience the presence of God making good on the promise made long ago: “Do not fear. I will help you.”
I have sent my photos of Dolly Sods to people all over the world, hoping that the peace I feel in that wilderness might be felt in other places where people feel disturbed or without hope.
For the past 7 months we have been in a wilderness, a wilderness that has produced fear and division. We are not alone in this wilderness. It is a wilderness that encompasses the world. As of this writing, over 40 million cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed worldwide. As of this writing, over 1 million deaths have occurred worldwide. As of this writing, nearly 8.5 million cases have been diagnosed in the United States, with nearly 225,000 deaths. And as of this writing, there have been over 20,000 positive cases in WV with 399 deaths.
This is wilderness, the kind of wilderness that produces fear and trepidation, or helplessness and hopelessness. This is the kind of wilderness that causes disbelief and the hope that, somehow, miraculously, without much effort, it will go away.
In the midst of Season of Creation, nature around us has helped to bring calm to our souls and hope to our lives. Specifically, this year the forests, the soil and land, the wilderness, and the rivers have given us beauty and peace to focus on in the midst of death and anguish of the pandemic and all of the other painful situations the pandemic has sparked. Creation, nature, the wilderness are gifts to us from God, to remind us that there is beauty all around us, even in those places of wilderness when it is easier to focus on danger than on the peace that the same place can bring. Creation, nature, the wilderness, are gifts to us from God to remind us of that promise: “Do not fear. I will help you.”
Shouldn’t these gifts also remind us that we are not here to take and take and take, but also to give and share and protect and preserve and cherish this wilderness, this creation. I pray that we notice God in the wilderness and in all the gifts of God’s creation and that we find ways to help others see and hear God’s promise: “Do not fear. I will help you.” I pray that we will also be inspired to protect the very gifts of God and the places where we find God and where God finds us.
Emmanuel—God with us.
May it be so.