A couple of weeks ago the Nebraska Synod bishop preached at my church, and toward the beginning of his sermon on the Book of Numbers, he said something that immediately caught my attention. In fact, one second after he said it, I grabbed a pen and jotted it onto my bulletin, and then I leaned over and whispered to Brad, “That’s good stuff! I’m going to steal that!”
I fully intended to give Bishop Maas credit of course, but I also knew immediately that the words he had spoken were going to make it into a blog post or an article or maybe even a book someday. They were just that good.
“The wilderness,” Bishop Maas said, “is the place God’s people stay and wait while God is up to something His people can’t possibly see or even imagine.”
I know. It’s good, isn’t it?
The thing is, I’ve always heard the wilderness described in negative terms as the place we wander or the place where God feels absent; or the place God sends us to teach us an important but difficult lesson. Never, until that moment, had I heard the wilderness described so hopefully, so positively.
The wilderness is not a place of desolation and futility and hopelessness, but a place brimming with wild possibility.
I heard Bishop Maas make that statement three times that Sunday. Because I was participating in the liturgy that day, I sat through all three worship services, something I’ve never done before. And every time I heard the bishop make that statement about the wilderness, I nodded my head yes. If I belonged to an Amen-out-loud kind of church, I would have Amen-ed out loud for sure.
That’s good teaching right there, I thought to myself. I couldn’t wait to pass it on to someone else.
Five days later, I found myself right smack in the middle of the wilderness.
When the phone rang Friday afternoon I knew within the first three words of our conversation that my agent was calling with bad news. Turns out, my publisher, after weeks of considering it, had turned down the proposal for my next book. It wasn’t the proposal itself that was the problem, my agent and, later, my editor assured me. It was the bottom line. Spiritual Misfit, my first book, has not sold well, not well at all. My publisher simply couldn’t afford to publish another book by me. I was not good for their bottom line.
I told a friend a few days later that being let go by your publisher feels both like being fired and being dumped by your boyfriend – at the same time. Not only had my professional life tanked, I also found myself mourning the loss of a relationship I deeply valued. I had come to know my editor really well in the months we worked together on Spiritual Misfit. I really, really like her, she knows me really, really well (she edited my memoir, after all!) and I was simply devastated that we wouldn’t work together on my next book. If there is a next book.
I grieved hard that first week – the full five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, well, frankly, I’m still working on acceptance. After an initial bout of full-out bawling that Friday afternoon, my eyes leaked tears for 48 hours. It didn’t matter what I was doing — dishes, laundry, playing Uno, picking the kids up from school – I oozed tears.
And then came the anger. I’m not going to lie. I boiled with self-righteous indignation. I blamed everyone I could think of, and when I was done running through the list of humans at fault, I blamed God. I blamed him for leading me down this publishing road, only to bring me to what seemed like a big, fat dead end. I blamed him for failing me, for betraying me, for not keeping his promise.
A few days after The Bad News, Brad and I were chatting in the sun room. I sat in my desk chair, my computer screen blank behind me as I faced my husband.
“You know, I read that verse you have posted over the bathroom sink,” Brad said. “The one about God’s promise.”
I knew the one. I’d read it over and over again since The Bad News, every time I washed my hands, every time I brushed my teeth, every time I touched up my lipstick or applied mascara. I knew the words by heart because I was banking on that promise:
“Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.” (Hebrews 10:23)
“The thing is, hon,” Brad continued gently, “God’s promises don’t necessarily include another book deal.”
“Well what does he promise then?” I hissed, “because I can’t seem to recall right now.” My throat clenched and tears pricked my eyes.
I looked at my husband, standing in the doorway of the sun room, and then I turned away and fixed my burning eyes on the blank computer screen.
Brad didn’t answer my angry question. I think he knew I wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind for a theological discussion. But I thought about what he’d said for days afterward. And I knew he was right. Brad is always right about this kind of stuff, even when it’s not what I want to hear.
So here’s the deal, friends. It’s true: God didn’t promise me another book deal. He didn’t promise that I’d get to spend my whole professional career as a book author. He didn’t promise me a particular job, even if it’s a job I love and feel called to.
God doesn’t promise us the job we desire, the spouse we yearn for, the baby we so desperately want, the clean bill of health we are praying for day in and day out. He doesn’t promise us wealth, health, success, an easy road or even happiness.
In fact, God doesn’t promise us most of what we think we want or most of what we think we need.
No. God doesn’t promise us any of those things, and I know, I know it’s hard to hear and accept, especially when you are right smack in the middle of the wilderness, facing the job loss, your spouse’s terminal diagnosis, the infertility, the negative PET scan, the drug addiction. I know it’s hard, because friends, I am here. I am here, in the wilderness, where the path is neither straight nor clear. I am here, asking God, “What’s next? What now?” I am here, asking God for a burning bush, a billboard, something, anything.
Yet even in the midst of the unknowns, here is what I know is true. Here is what I am banking on as I stand in the wilderness with some of you:
That’s it. It’s that simple. God works all things together toward good; God promises to be with us always. These aren’t the only promises God made, but these are the ones I am trusting in today.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God had me sit through Bishop Maas’s sermon three times in a single Sunday two weeks ago. God knows I am willful and stubborn and spiritually hard of hearing. He knows I need to hear a message more than once for it to stick. God also knew that five days from that Sunday morning I would find myself in the wilderness, needing a message about that very wilderness to reverberate through my heart, mind and soul.
I’m not saying I’ll ever get a clear answer from God on this, even though that’s what I desperately want. I’m not saying I’ll get that burning bush or the billboard. I know God doesn’t always provide answers. He doesn’t package life’s mysteries into a beautiful box and tie it all up with a shiny red bow, ready for me to unwrap when I choose. I may get the answers I’m looking for in heaven, during what I hope will be a long and detailed Q&A period. I may not. All I know for sure is that God is sovereign and he is good.
And so I stay and wait in this wilderness, trusting that God is working out something good, something I can’t possibly see or even imagine right now. I wander through this wilderness confident that it is not a place of desolation and hopelessness and despair, but a place brimming with wild possibility and potential.
A place full of promise and hope.
Linking this post with Kelli Woodford’s Unforced Rhythms of Grace.