Next Stop: The Desert
Did you know that the word “wilderness” occurs nearly 300 times in the Bible? Many people in the Bible had a wilderness experience– Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, just to name a few. And if you’re a Christian, sooner or later you’ll find yourself there also.
You may wonder, “Why the wilderness? Why do God’s people end up there?”
When we think of the wilderness, we tend to associate it with something bad. But God doesn’t see it that way.
“In our Western cultures, we are very used to our comforts,” writes journalist Estera Wieja in her article Wilderness Meaning in the Bible: The Importance of Desert Seasons. “Even as followers of Jesus, we try to avoid the desert. We don’t like when life gets hard, or barren, or lonely. The wilderness makes us feel isolated, so we do what we can to escape it…Although in hardship we want to avoid the discomfort of the desert, it is in fact an invitation to an encounter. God wants to speak to us.”
Rolston Holmes, a professor at Colorado State University, explains, “The wilderness is a locale for intense experiences– of stark need for food and water, of isolation, of danger and divine deliverance, of renewal, of encounters with God.” There is purpose to the wilderness.
Although it happened many years ago, I still remember my first wilderness experience. I had been a Christian for three years, and was in my junior year of college. Ever since high school, I had wanted to be a librarian. I loved books but wasn’t keen on people, having experienced much rejection and abuse in my youth. I thought being a librarian would be the perfect career for me, and I was on track to reaching that goal– or so I thought.
But I soon discovered that God had other ideas.
Heading For the Wilderness
Three things occurred that year to alter my course and plunge me into the wilderness.
The first involved my grandparents. I had lived with them at various times in my childhood, and now I was living with them again. Their cottage was only a short distance from campus, and I was saving a lot of money in room and board. I was very close to Nana and Pop. Then suddenly one day Pop was struck by a car and killed. My grandmother took it very hard; they had been married over 50 years. At the wake and funeral, I had several relatives come to me and say how glad they were that I was living with her so she wouldn’t be alone. They did not realize that I had been planning to transfer to another college at the other end of the state to pursue a degree in library science.
The second thing that interrupted my plans was that, for the very first time, I was involved in a romantic relationship which was fast becoming pretty serious. I was reluctant to leave my girlfriend. I didn’t buy into the telephone commercial that insisted “Long distance is the next best thing to being there.” Continuing the relationship hundreds of miles away by phone was not an appealing option.
The third factor was finances. My initial plan had been to save up money during my first years at Eastern, because the other college would be more expensive. But I was just scraping by, so that plan crashed and burned. In fact, I didn’t even have enough money to register for the next semester at Eastern. I was short by $187.29, to be exact. (I actually don’t remember the exact amount, but it was an odd number like that). It wasn’t an exorbitant amount of money, but to a struggling college student it might as well have been a million dollars.
I found myself grieving, not only for dear Pop but for the imminent death of a dream. It seemed there was no way I could transfer and become a librarian. I felt sad and confused and trapped– and angry. “God, why did all this have to happen?” When I didn’t get an answer, my anger turned into a bit of a temper tantrum. I decided that since I couldn’t have everything I wanted, I would just drop out of school. The lack of finances would be a good excuse.
But I didn’t feel right about it, so I left a door open. “God, I don’t have the money. So I’m not going to say a word about this to anybody, but if you want me to stay in school, you’re going to have to provide the money. All $187.29 of it.” It wasn’t a prayer of faith; I knew I was acting like a smug two-year-old, but at that point I didn’t care. I just crossed my arms and waited to see what would happen.
On the Edge
At first nothing happened, which was what I had expected. The tuition deadline drew closer and closer, but no money rained out of the sky. And then, the day before the deadline, Ron and Polly Brackett asked if I could babysit for them that night. Ron and Polly were dear friends with six children, and I had often watched the kids. I never asked to be paid, though; I knew money was tight.
So I said “Sure,” and settled in for an uneventful night. When they returned home I got up to leave– but Ron asked me to sit down. Puzzled, I complied. They sat down at the kitchen table with me. “We were praying this morning,” Ron began, “and the Lord told both of us that you have a financial need. We don’t know what it is, but– ” Ron glanced at Polly, who smiled and nodded. Then he slid an envelope across the table. “We want you to have this.”
I was so stunned I don’t even remember if I thanked them. My hand shook as I took the envelope and shoved it in my pocket. On the ride home my mind tumbled with cascading thoughts. “What is this, God? Is that what I think it is? You wouldn’t do this to me, would you? Man, I can’t believe…”
When I got home I sat down and stared at the envelope, then slowly opened it. Out fell a mixture of bills and coins. I counted the money– then counted again.
It was $187.29– exactly. To the penny.
I started crying. I prayed, asking God to forgive me for my stupidity. I hadn’t even asked God for guidance, but there it was, in bills and coins. The next day I paid my tuition, and made an appointment to see my advisor. It looked like I was staying at Eastern– but why?
As it turned out, after three years I only needed one more course to have enough credits for a Bachelor’s degree in English. But it didn’t make sense to just take one course, so my advisor did some checking to see if I could pick up a minor. It turned out that there was only one option for that– a minor in Secondary Education. “You mean teaching?! I don’t want to be a teacher!” But the advisor did some arm-twisting and before I knew it, I was registered for a full semester of courses and a 9-week stint of student teaching at a local public high school.
The coursework wasn’t a problem– I was a good student. But my high school days had been the worst years of my life, and here I was three years later about to teach in a high school. I was not looking forward to the experience.
And if I had known how bad that experience would be, I would have pulled a Jonah and run in the opposite direction.
High School, a.k.a. Hell
Student teaching was a temporary visa to hell. The kids were just as obnoxious as ever. I had expected that, but what I didn’t expect was what I got from the two supervising teachers I was to work with. I’ll call them Mr. Day and Miss Night (names have been changed to protect the guilty).
Mr. Day told me how delighted he was to have me. He explained that I would be working with a sophomore class, teaching Vocabulary and the novel The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. He gave me a key to the supply closet and told me, “Don’t hesitate to ask me for any help you need. Anything at all.”
I never saw him again.
A few years later I learned that he had been fired for drinking on the job. I suspect I was his “liquid lunch” ticket.
The other supervising teacher, Miss Night, was in the last year of an illustrious teaching career. She was accustomed to working with the college-prep honors classes, but this last year the administration had assigned her one lower-level class, and she was bitter. Of course, that would be the class I would be teaching for 9 weeks.
The first day of class, she brought me to the front and announced, “Class, this is Mr. Tracy. He will be working with you this semester.”
Then she turned to me and said, “Mr. Tracy, this is your dummies class.”
I stood there in silent shock as a roomful of adolescents glared at me.
Miss Day sat in the back of the room for a week and then she, too, disappeared. Apparently my supervising teachers didn’t believe in supervising.
Speaking of supervising, I did have a staff advisor from the college who was supposed to observe me in three different classes. He only showed up once, and happened to observe the only decent class I taught in the entire 9 weeks (I didn’t say it was good, but at least it wasn’t a disaster). Perhaps feeling guilty for his dereliction of duties, he wrote me a glowing review.
I did see Miss Night once more, on my last day there. She asked to see my final grades for the class– and proceeded to lower every grade. I was livid. I went to my staff advisor to complain, but he said I had no way to appeal her decisions. “Student teachers are basically slaves,” he added.
Free At Last
Those were the slowest, most agonizing weeks I had ever been through. I came home each night drained, and dreading the next morning when I’d have to do it all over again. I complained and cried and pleaded with God. “God, what are you doing to me? I’m not cut out for this! I can’t be a teacher! I wanna get out of this!”
But a strange thing was happening. The more I prayed, the more I felt that this was God’s plan for me. I didn’t know how I would survive it, but it was becoming more and more certain. I hated the public schools, but it was looking more and more like that’s where I’d be spending my working years. The only comfort I had was that the agony of student teaching was behind me. But I remained fearful of what lay ahead.
Spring semester dragged as I finished up the last of my courses. I was tired of college, but the end was in sight. My girlfriend had now become my fiancee, and the wedding was set for the weekend after graduation. At least I had something to look forward to!
About a month before graduation, my pastor asked to see me to discuss “something important.” I couldn’t imagine what he wanted to see me about. I was in for a shock.
The coffeehouse ministry that I had gotten involved in after getting saved there ran a small Christian school. They had a principal and two teachers, all friends of mine. The pastor explained that one of the teachers had a calling on his life to enter full-time pastoral ministry– and since I was about to graduate, would I consider taking his position as teacher?
Teach– in a Christian school? For some reason, that thought had never entered my head. I had assumed that God was sending me to a public school. But the atmosphere in a Christian school would be very different. I already knew many of the students because they attended the church with me.
It was one of those light bulb moments. I was out of the wilderness at last. I could imagine God smiling as if to say, “You see? I knew what I was doing all along.”
Why the Wilderness?
Why the wilderness? In my case, God’s purpose was to steer me in a different direction, and to develop obedience in me. I never would have considered a lifetime of teaching children if He hadn’t put me in that wilderness. And even though I wept gallons of tears, I reached a point where I was willing to obey God no matter how miserable I was.
As it turned out, I wouldn’t be miserable at all. I proceeded to have a wonderful 44-year career in Christian schools. I loved my work and my students. I also ministered to children through Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, evangelistic crusades and a children’s club. Along the way I also earned a Master’s degree in Elementary Education.
I am now retired, but I look back on my school years with great fondness and many happy memories. Miserable? Far from it!
Perhaps you find yourself in the wilderness. Let me assure you, God has not abandoned you. It is part of His plan and purpose for your life. Keep faithful, and know that when at last you come out of that wilderness, you’ll be in a place more fulfilling than you could ever imagine. Yes, the desert is hard and unpleasant. But like all seasons, your wilderness season will come to an end– and you’ll be better off for it.
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“The Man Who Hated Children” http://www.livingthetransformedlife.com/the-man-who-hated-children
“God Has Plans For You” http://www.livingthetransformedlife.com/god-has-plans-for-you