By Angela Pleasants
I am an avid hiker. My passion for hiking began in high school when my advanced biology class explored the Great Smoky Mountains to examine various species of lichen, mushrooms, and insects. The greatest joy on a hike is looking at the wonders of God’s creation. When I find rare plants, majestic landscapes, and cascading waterfalls, I think only God can create such a masterpiece.
Recently, I was on one of my hiking adventures on an uncharted trail. It was not one of the National Parks. It was unexplored woods. It was one of those places you will not find on any Global Positioning System (GPS).
I was so caught up with looking at the beauty around me I neglected to notice I had wandered deep into the woods. My hiking shirt says, “All who wander are not lost.” Well, I was lost. I looked at my phone, and I had no signal because I was so far into the woods.
Soon the beauty that surrounded me became dark and foreboding. What was the difference? I was in the same wooded area that once was beautiful and light, but now it seemed dark and cold.
The difference in my perception came from the unknown. I was in unfamiliar territory with no tracking device to find my way out of the woods. In the beginning, panic set in, and I felt the shock waves throughout my body. Questions emerged in my mind, “No one knows where I am, what if I run across a wild animal? What if darkness sets in before I find my way out?” I had a lot of “what if” questions with no answers.
What happens when we are confronted with challenges where we don’t have all the answers? What do we do when we are in our wilderness and don’t see a clear path out?
I had to step back and assess my situation. Instead of reacting to the rising panic, I calmed my breathing and focused on what I knew.
A friend gifted me with a portable mini compass for hiking which I always take on my adventures. When I was finally calm, I remembered I had the compass with me. Once I was thinking rationally, I began to use my wilderness skills and followed nature’s guidance. I know moss grows most abundantly on the north side of trees. So, with my compass and signals from nature, I determined my direction and ended up safely out of the woods.
Instead of seeing challenges as obstacles that cause anxiety, how can we view challenges as opportunities for innovation? How can we navigate successfully through the vicissitudes of life?
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43.18-19).
I’m not too fond of surprises. I want to know what will happen before it happens. Sometimes we are like that with life. We want all the answers before we make decisions. Therefore, if something worked in the past, we cling to it while fearful of an unknown future. Even if what we are clinging to no longer works effectively, we still know what we have instead of the unknown before us.
In the Isaiah passage, we are reminded of the work God did in the past through Israel’s exodus from Egypt. We are also reminded not to enshrine God’s methods. God will also act in new ways.
Through our challenges, God can strengthen our faith when we release our grip on needing to be in control of the outcome. Instead, we can stretch our vision to trust in the God who makes a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Notice, God did not remove the wilderness or the desert, but he did make a way in the wilderness and desert.
Sometimes our greatest wilderness is fear and anxiety that can cripple our faith and hinder our creative innovations. We cannot be so consumed in panic and fear that we miss the power of God operating in our wilderness experience.
So how do we respond? When I was lost in the woods, I could not give in to panic. I had to assess what I knew. I put years into study and application about hiking and wilderness experiences. I have a friend who is an environmentalist and experienced hiker; I have hiked alongside him and learned great lessons. When I was lost, the one thing necessary was to draw upon the lessons I learned and my experience as a hiker.
In our Christian journey, where we encounter challenges and obstacles, we should never forget the one thing necessary. “But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10.42).
How often do we spend so much time worrying about our challenges, others, or decisions? Martha was busy doing valuable work, but she became consumed with her work and the affairs of Mary. She tried to draw Jesus into her complaint against Mary. Instead of Jesus giving room for Martha’s complaint to grow, he honored Mary’s choice. Busyness will often be a part of our life. But we cannot neglect our time of sitting before Jesus in prayer and studying scripture.
How else do we respond to challenges? Before Jesus ascended, the disciples came to him because they had unanswered questions. They wanted to know when the kingdom would be restored to Israel. In Jesus’ response, he does not answer their specific question. Jesus gives the answer that mattered for the work they would begin.
The disciples were focused on an earthly kingdom, but Jesus directed them toward a heavenly kingdom. Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.7-8).
As I used my compass to navigate the woods, it became my guiding light. When we are in our wilderness journey in life, the Holy Spirit will direct our every path. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that is necessary for the Christian life and ministry.
When the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, they stood before a diverse group of people. It may have seemed like a challenge to speak before people who were diverse in their culture and language. But empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began to preach, and the people understood in their language. As a result of the Holy Spirit that empowered Peter, three thousand souls were saved.
When I entered the woods, there was no trail. But I could not become consumed with the “what if” questions that provided no definitive answers. The only way out of my wilderness was to remember and trust what I learned through my experiences. Likewise, God makes a way in our wilderness and provides water in our deserts. So, let us trust his provisions, stretch forth our faith, and receive the new thing God is doing among us.
Angela Pleasants is a United Methodist clergyperson and the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Vice President for Clergy and Church Relations. She is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. This article first appeared WCA’s Outlook and is reprinted here by permission.