I met Marvin Garrison in the summer of 2008. We’d both been chosen to serve as interpreters for an organization called Baja Missions, based in Baja, California, Mexico.
We would join mission teams from the United States and accompany them to their assigned churches to spend the week with them – translating their Bible studies and helping them minister to the people in the area.
We spent six weeks together as Baja Missions summer interns and became good friends, but when he asked me out on a date at the end of the summer, I didn’t really know what to do.
Inside I was ecstatic because I really liked him – but my outward response was much more subdued – a tactic I’ve used my entire life to avoid getting hurt.
I agreed, and we wound up going on a few dates, but eventually, insecurity and self-doubt got the best of me and stopped that relationship from romantically becoming what I’d hoped it would.
The root of my inability to let people get close to me was a deeper issue I discovered later – I didn’t really know who I was or where my life was going. I’d worked as a social worker and as a recreation therapy assistant, then I’d enrolled in seminary.
I knew I wanted to be a minister and I knew I loved people, but truly loving others is pretty hard when you don’t truly love yourself. It’s even harder when it doesn’t feel like God loves you either.
When I think of “wilderness,” I think of my second year in seminary, after that perfect summer in Baja, after meeting a great guy and letting him get away.
I’d followed God’s call to pursue theological education and in return for my faithfulness, I got lonely nights filled with homework, a million hours’ worth of reading per night and a paradoxically uncomfortable feeling that, though I knew God had called me there and though I knew that God was helping me make it through, at the same time, God felt extremely far away.
In my anxiety about what would happen if I ever finished seminary, in my worry about relationships, and in my quest to get my degree without having a nervous breakdown, I lost sight of the big picture of life as a journey because I was so unhappy with my present reality.
I’ll be honest with you, for a little while, I felt justified in my unhappiness and righteous in my anger.
I felt like after I’d followed God back to the classroom, God abandoned me at the door. But, that kind of attitude will eat you up inside, and I knew that eventually something would have to change before I’d be able to move on.
We each experience some kind of anxiety in our daily lives, because we’re human, but focusing on worry about what’s going to happen to us can consume us if we’re not careful, and when that happens, our ability to see God at work in the ordinariness of life suffers.
When we can’t discern God’s presence in the ordinary, we tend to deny God’s activity in the extraordinary, which is exactly where we find the people of Israel on their journey from slavery to freedom.
They are two months into what feels like the longest journey of their whole lives.
Tired, hungry and thirsty, the excitement of rescue and the anticipation of life in freedom has had about 60 days to slowly fade away – and as it fades, so does their resolve, their motivation and their recollection of what life in bondage was like.
They begin to complain to Moses and Aaron – that in Egypt, they would take their breaks sitting next to simmering pots filled with meat, eating bread until they were full.
At least they had that, but out here, they have no meat, and the don’t sit around eating until they are full – out here, they are walking the trails of a barren wasteland, just waiting to die.
They are, understandably, consumed with worry over how their basic needs will be met – and what started as a material crisis of food, has now become a crisis of faith, as their worry has colored their memories of Egypt, leading them to believe that food eaten in Egyptian bondage would be so much better than death by starvation in freedom.
Their inability to discern God’s presence in the ordinary – they haven’t died of starvation yet – has lead them to deny God’s activity in the extraordinary – they are now a free people, because God miraculously led them out of Egypt.
As they bring their complaints to Moses and Aaron, Moses and Aaron recognize that their complaints come from a place of deep anxiety – that has little to do with them, and everything to do with God.
They are looking at a group of people whose identity is based in mistrust, deep abuse and severe oppression – a group of people who may know with their minds that God has heard them and rescued them, but who feel in their hearts that God has abandoned them out here in the freedom of the wilderness, and it feels even worse than it felt when God abandoned them in the slavery of Egypt, because at least there, they got to eat.
Moses and Aaron bring the voices of the people to God, and God responds with a plan – bread will rain down on them in the morning and quail will surround them in the evening.
Every day, they will be provided for, even in the wilderness, every need will be met.
God tells Moses and Aaron, four times God says this, that God has heard the complaints of the people, affirming that God is listening and present, and then God comes through for them.
Through the transition, though it’s hard for them to see God at work, God says their needs will be met in such a way that they will know God’s glory and God’s care for them.
The community is then invited to draw near to God in worship, and as the people turn their faces away from Egypt and look toward the vast expanse of desert land, emptied of any signs of life; there, in the wilderness, they see the glory of the Lord in a cloud.
In a vast expanse of dead land, a glimpse of hope breaks through.
In the moment they turn their focus from Egypt – the place they expect their needs to be met, God creates life and a reminder of God’s presence in the most unexpected of places, and their journey becomes more than just a quest to make it to the promised land without having a nervous breakdown – it becomes a journey in learning to trust God again, and learning how to be obedient to God’s leading as a result.
As isolating as my first two years of seminary were, my last three made up for them.
When I started there, I was taking a few classes at a time because I was working also. Eventually, they ran out of night classes for me to take, and I started my third year as a full time student.
As time went on, and I was around other students more than one night a week, I made some really great friends, and I started gaining confidence in myself, and in God’s work in me.
I tell people that I found myself in seminary, and to a large extent, that’s true. My classes taught me to be open minded, and I discovered that if I was going to take my calling seriously, I would need to start grounding my identity in God and I felt God was calling me to be: a compassionate minister who lives people, the presence of Christ to the isolated abs the peace of Christ to the burdened.
Marvin nd I have stayed good friends, and I don’t know where that will go, but it’s ok.
I don’t really know where my life is going – sometimes I wish I did, but in the meantime, here’s what I do know.
I know that in every wilderness I’ve faced, God has been with me. I know that in the hardest times, God has provided for me, and I know that though my future is uncertain, God has prepared me to face it, and that I don’t face it alone.
You and I stand today on the precipice of a new and exciting future.
The other day, I was thinking about the ministry this congregation is starting – to reach out to the isolated and the lonely – and I got really excited.
About three pages of stream of consciousness notes’ worth of excited and, while if prefer not to relive lonely seminary nights or misadventures in carrying the cross of social awkwardness, I’m thankful that my experiences have shaped me into who I am and that they’ve led me here to you.
I know that this transition has been very hard. So many of you have memories tied to the old building, and I know that it is so painful to think about not being in that space, and not having a permanent worship space of our own.
Any kind of change is hard, and this one is especially hard because of the deep memories housed there. It’s natural to feel anxious about what’s going to happen and what’s next.
Ginny Payne told me on the phone the other day, that while it is sad to see this change happening, that it doesn’t mean that God is finished with us, just with that particular location.
The shape of our ministry may not be fully developed yet, and we don’t know how it will look, and we’re still trying to figure out who we are as a congregation and how we fit into our new identity as church on mission, but we know that in this wilderness time we face – of saying goodbye to our old space, that God is with us.
As we turn our faces away from the corner of Scott Boulevard and North Decatur Road and toward the chapel on the corner of Commerce Street and Clairemont Avenue, we know that God has provided this space for us, and will continue to provide for us as we seek God’s blessing on this new ministry.
As we wait in this wilderness time, doing our best to adjust to this transition, we are hopeful as we look for God’s glory among us – in a shared experience of communion, in the singing of a favorite hymn with words that transcend time and space and speak to our hearts, in a visit or phone call to a care ministry member.
This worship space may be temporary, but God’s presence with us is permanent, and God’s blessings on each life represented here, God’s calling on each of us to care for people, God’s provision, direction and purpose for us as we move forward are ongoing, forever; signs of God’s presence with us and reminders that even in the wilderness, we will know the Lord.