A few years ago while I was living in Chicago, I made some friends from China who were in the US attending an MBA program. We met together weekly to work on their English, and perhaps more importantly, to help them become more familiar with American culture.
After several months of eating hamburgers and spaghetti, drinking tea, and learning American idioms, I decided to take them to the most American place I know: my hometown. So, for Easter weekend, the three of them joined me as we hunted mushrooms (morels) with my step-dad, ate Easter dinner at my grandparents home, and drank tea with my dad in his living room.
The one near disaster of the weekend was during the mushroom hunt when Arthur, a savvy entrepreneur from China’s Sichuan province, was lost in the woods for about an hour just before dusk. We had warned him about the “hollars” (known as “hollows” or valleys outside of rural Indiana) and how easily they can turn a person around. But the warning fell on deaf ears as this curious visitor got side-tracked by his exploration.
In the end, my step-dad, who knows that little patch of woods like the back of his hand, figured out the logical direction that Arthur could have wandered, drove the pick up truck to that side of the woods, and began honking until we finally saw him emerge.
The most interesting part of the whole encounter was Arthur’s version of the story. What was really just a few-acre wooded creek bed became a vast forest with unknown dangers as he told it. When he was lost in the middle of it, watching the sun sink and the shadows grow larger, that forest was as big as fear itself.
Our wilderness experiences often suffer from the same lack of perspective when we are in the middle of them. Each wilderness is the darkest, the dryest, the loneliest, the hardest. If we could see our lives from just beyond the wandering, we’d know the truth. But here, from where we sit, the sun is sinking, and our prospects look a little grim.
On the other hand, as we watch others go through their wildernesses, it’s tempting to point out the discrepancy, to show them on the map that their “wilderness” is really just a stand of trees in the middle of a suburb. Like my friend Kay’s young nephew who thought my neighborhood was a “scary forest” as they drove through the leafy tunnel at dusk one day last fall.
But the truth about wilderness experiences is that they are bigger than the wilderness itself. Just as Noah and his family were driven to the ark for 40 days and 40 nights of rain, just as Moses was forced to flee to Midian for 40 years, just as the Israelites were turned away from the promised land for 40 years of wandering, or just as Jesus was led by the Spirit to the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, God has a purpose for this wilderness at this time in your life.
It might not be the wilderness that others have had to pass through, and a year from now, you might look back and consider it nothing but a bumpy patch. But for today, this wilderness you are in is a “you-sized” wilderness from the hand of God to lead you on to the blessings he has waiting just beyond.