As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’
Through prayerful reflection, we have changed our upcoming Annual Conference theme from “One in Ministry to All the World” to “Wilderness.” We do this, not because we do not believe that God’s Holy Spirit is making us one in ministry to all the world, but to acknowledge that we are not currently experiencing the God-given unity that exists through our faith and baptism. The recent General Conference has not left us with a sense of oneness, unity, wholeness and connection. We are not feeling it. We are not witnessing it. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but that we are not currently experiencing this “Promised Land,” to which God is leading us. We are nowhere close to our Promised Land; we are together wandering in the wilderness.
To a casual observer, the wilderness is not a good place. It is wild, and dangerous, and desolate, and uninviting. God’s people, throughout the ages, have not enjoyed the wilderness. What was true for the Israelites with Moses, and for Jesus tempted by Satan, is true for us today: the wilderness is frightening and challenging and overwhelming. It is clear that we are in a wilderness time as a global denomination – threats and challenges and despair abound – but what might we learn from wilderness journeys of old?
First, the wilderness is not the destination. God never leaves God’s people in the wilderness. God does not wish for us to wander aimlessly, but our wandering is a means to obtaining the ends God wants for us. The wilderness is that which lies between where we are today and the Promised Land of tomorrow. We never head for the wilderness as our final place, but we brave the wilderness to get somewhere better. Our United Methodist fellowship is in a desolate and painful wilderness place, but this is part of our journey, not our Promised Land. The better we pass through this time of testing, the better our arrival will be on the other side.
Second, while the wilderness may not be desirable, the wilderness is necessary. It is sometimes said, “You can’t get there from here.” Many, many people are feeling that way for our church today – we can never arrive at a place of unity and collaboration and mutuality and rapport because the wilderness we are in is too vast, too great, and too unconquerable. The dividing chasms that separate us cannot be bridged. The resources for our thriving are too limited. The energy to continue is too scarce. We simply cannot see the deliverance that God has in store for us. Yet, the testing, strengthening, and perfecting that comes through the wilderness come from no other source or experience. If we retreat to a place of comfort, safety, and ease (a place with no division, disagreement, or debate) we will not have grown, and we will forever be denied access to a true Promised Land.
Third, the wilderness is full of treasures and beauty. It is so simple to focus on the threats and dangers of wilderness space and time. It is dry, arid, uncomfortable, dangerous, and unpleasant. Who in their right mind wishes to spend one minute more in the wilderness that they absolutely have to? Through the ages, many have chosen the wilderness. They have chosen to withdraw from demands and distractions. They have been pulled to seek something better. They have reveled in the grand vistas, open spaces, the beauties hidden and revealed, and the time for introspection and humility. Much learning, much growth, much discernment, and much transformation occur in wilderness spaces.
Fourth, the wilderness is where we all are, together. Right this minute, it may not feel like much of a gift that we are all wandering in the wilderness together. Our whole wilderness is defined by the “us/them” divisions about our understanding of Bible, theology, human sexuality, cultural nuance, multiple diversities, sociological complexities that comprise real life. “Those” people (however you define “those”) are the problem! We wouldn’t be in the wilderness if not for “them.” But people are not the problem, people are God’s blessed solution. We are gifts to one another, no matter how differently we think or feel. The only way we can make it through the wilderness is together. Beyond our survival, we will only thrive and prosper in community.
My great prayer and hope is that we might not reject the wilderness; that we might not flee back to Egypt because it feels safer, more comfortable, and familiar. Going back, separating, agreeing to disagree is captivity. Struggling, battling, learning, growing, hurting and healing are the truth of the wilderness. And the only way we will arrive at the Promised Land is to fight hard, together, and to trust that God is leading us to a better place. It isn’t easy. It isn’t safe. It isn’t fun. But it is essential and necessary and imperative, and the very best way we can survive the wilderness is together. God never leaves us, God is with us, and God will guide us. Thanks be to God.
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).