What a year it has been, with normal rhythms of pastoral care altered, controversial politics abounding, and an ever-shifting landscape of threat (in the form of Covid) abiding. Lord, have mercy.
In an ironic twist of fate (otherwise known as a clearly God-ordained plot), 1 Samuel turned out to be the Bible study our church had planned well in advance of this year. As the global wilderness of Covid plodded on, the tumultuous accounts of Israel, Saul, and David often hit a little too close to home. Our corporate longing for relief, resolve, and comfort was almost palpable, a refrain in nearly every conversation. Yet there we were, willingly wandering through various levels and applications of the wilderness each week. The Lord often gives us what we need, even when it’s not what we want, doesn’t He?
The wilderness in 1 Samuel is almost like another character, much as seasons of our lives tend to take on specific characters when we retell our stories. It is noteworthy that 1 Samuel begins with the wilderness of Hannah’s infertility — an invitation for us to connect with the powerless places in our own lives where we’ve known barren and dry lands.
In David’s case, the wilderness is a lurker, a returning visitor who receives him as he flees from the murderous Saul. The actual environment would have been inhospitable, dangerous, and disorienting — a place of exposure and of vulnerability. It would have leveled the playing field for any inhabitants by providing a distinct lack of safety for all, even if some were more vulnerable than others.
It is in this particular place that David is stripped of his self-reliance and invited to depend on God for his very survival. It is a place where he wrestles with God, and where he will later write,
“O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory” (Ps. 63:1-2).
Two of the most beautiful gifts of this Covid wilderness over the past year have been ones very few of us (if any) enjoy: First, exposure of our need, and second, the invitation to live in the tension of trusting Jesus amidst that need.
So many of our distractions were stripped away (and yes, of course, we found others), as were our regular patterns of relating to our work, families, and hobbies. But for the first time in our lives, this shift was universal. No one was untouched by it. We were all just impacted in different ways.
Christians are a wilderness people who live in the tension of the now-but-not yet, the kingdom come-yet-not-fulfilled. And although many of us still tend to be experts at avoiding, minimizing, or spiritualizing the tension and mystery of following Yahweh, wilderness seasons often foster more vulnerable conversation and more willingness to be honest about the longing for things to be made right. Their disorientation can be strangely clarifying in the end.
This is one of the biggest ways I’ve seen the Lord work during the pandemic: people of every age – and especially the older, wiser folks in our body – have hidden less from one another. Longings have been offered, needs have been presented, and losses have been shared (perhaps more readily). In order for the body of Christ to bear one another’sburdens, those burdens have to be shared, and there are few things any of us like less than to allow someone else to see and approach our burdens. But this is how we love! This is one of the primary ways the body builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:16) as it awaits the return of the King.
So how do we practice this in our ministries? How do we walk faithfully with one another through various wilderness seasons?
I would suggest that we need to get to know the landscape of one another’s individual wildernesses and to teach our students to do the same. We need to compassionately ask, “What has this been like for you?” and listen for longings, needs, and losses that invite prayer and grief. We need to remember together where the Lord has been faithful and cry out to Him as David does in Psalm 63. Exposure of our need has the deep potential to draw us into fellowship with God and one another.
The pandemic wilderness has left me deeply indebted to the more seasoned brothers and sisters in my life who offer their fears, longings, and prayer needs so much more readily than I do. They have shown me time and again that Jesus is big enough to hold my suffering, my burdens, and my hopes. They have shown me what faithful wrestling with Jesus through grief looks like. They have walked with me as we have waited together on God in the wilderness, trusting that He will not leave His people, and He will provide.
As you continue on in this wilderness and similar seasons to come, I pray you will humbly allow others to see you in your need and to bear it with you before the Father. I pray that you will allow the saints to walk with you and care for you even as you walk with others, caring for them. I pray that God will meet you as only He can, providing for and sustaining you in the most intimate ways. I pray that you will come to know more and more deeply that He truly is the One whose right hand upholds us, and whose steadfast love is better than life (Ps. 63:3).