I remember when I was a college student, I spent one summer working in southern Maine in the resort town of Ogunquit. I was there as part of a small ministry team reaching out to tourists and and other college students working in the area for the summer. It was a dream come true, being there in that beautiful town on the ocean, but it also was one of my early wilderness experiences as a believer.
It was the summer after my sophomore year, and though I had been in college for two years, I hadn’t really been away from home like this. Taylor University, where I was an undergraduate, was only two hours from my parents, and between their visits to see me and my trips home on the weekends, I probably hadn’t been “on my own” for more than a couple of weeks at a time. So beings hundreds of miles away in Maine for 12 weeks was big.
Inflated expectations of this summer experience also set me up for great disappointments. What was supposed to have been a team experience ended up being three very different people stuck together for a few months. The only other woman on the team ended up leaving early because of some personality conflicts with the ministry leaders, and her leaving actually was a relief to me too. I welcomed being alone more than the constant conflict.
Things were hard financially, too. Not only did we each have to pay to go on the trip, we also had to get day jobs to provide for our needs throughout the summer. Some days, having two nickels to rub together was about the best I could do.
Surprisingly, I have only fond sentiments about the experience. I was young and adapted pretty well to conflict and poverty. (I was a college student, after all). And though the experience was difficult, it actually was a fairly safe environment for me to struggle in. My parents would have sent money had I needed them to, and I could have gone home at any time. In sticking it out, though, and struggling through what was given to me, this trip has become an important memorial of God’s faithfulness and provision to me.
Memorials are important to the Lord. Throughout Scripture, he instructs his people to do things as a way to remember their relationship with Him. Things like tassels on the corners of garments were given to the Israelites to remember the commands of the law. Unleavened bread became part of the Passover celebration to help God’s people remember how they left Egypt in haste. Even the sacrament of communion was given by Jesus so we would remember His sacrifice.
The Lord gave a special memorial to Israel as they were leaving the wilderness and preparing to enter the promised land. They had been wondering for 40 years. In a grand gesture, the Lord parted the Jordan River as the threshold into their new home. But while the water was walled up on each side, the Lord told each tribe of Israel to send someone into the river bed to gather a stone, and when they had returned camp, they built a memorial. Their wilderness experience had begun and ended with God’s miraculous provision of parted water, and He wanted them to remember His faithfulness forever.
That’s what my summer in Maine has been for me: a remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the wildernesses of life. An oil painting of the Maine coast hangs in my living room. It’s a decent piece of artwork, as far as artwork goes. But its significance is far greater than composition and texture.
When I look at the painting, I remember the days when I went to work at the beach snack shop with no money for lunch, and someone would unexpectedly leave me a $5 tip. It wasn’t even a job where I was supposed to get tips. I also remember the path along the ocean, and the big rock tucked around the corner. It had an indentation the exact size for me to sit in, as if God himself were holding me and keeping me safe. I went there to forget my loneliness. The picture also reminds me of God’s faithfulness in bringing people into my life that summer. They were a rag tag little group comprising the wayward middle-aged man I met on the beach, the retired woman I lived with, a houseful of college students who invited me to parties and movies, and a 20-year-old recovering alcoholic who wore black lipstick and worked in a shop I liked.
As we are heading into the last days of our Lenten wilderness, it will be easy to forget God’s faithfulness to meet with us and help us grow unless we establish a memorial. Pick just one thing — maybe a card you received from a friend, a rock you found in the back yard, or napkin from the coffee shop where you go to read — and set it aside to help you remember. Remember that God is faithful, even in the wilderness.