This is an original post by Marlena Graves, author of A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness.
Marlena Graves (MDiv, Northeastern Seminary) is an op-ed writer for Christianity Today‘s popular Her.meneutics blog. She is a member of Ink: A Creative Collective, the Redbud Writers Guild, and the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Institute and has written for Christianity Today, Relevant, and the Conversations blog. She has also worked in college residential life and speaks frequently to students and congregations about spiritual formation.
My Wilderness Life
Nail in my hand, from my Creator. / You gave me life, now show me how to live.
That line from the former rock band Audioslave’s song “Show Me How to Live” captures well the nature of the guttural-groan prayers that escaped my soul during my childhood and teenage years. I never really had a childhood; it was as if I were an adult in a child-sized body trying to find daily solutions to adult-sized problems. While my parents clearly loved my brothers and me, I grew up in daily chaos, which was fueled by poverty, what I now know to be the mental illness of a parent, and some bad decisions I made as a teenager. I grew up in the wilderness.
From about the ages of ten to fourteen, I’d hole myself up in my room and read the Bible after I did whatever chores had to be done. We didn’t have many toys and my friends were far away. And so I preferred reading the Bible and listening to Christian radio preachers to the other alternative: watching television.
Only as an adult do I understand how ingesting Scripture deeply formed me in the Jesus way. I believed that God was for me and with me in the wilderness. If he delivered the Israelites from their captivity and helped all sorts of others to overcome dire circumstances, he could do the same for me.
The ancients tell a story about Abba Moses. Once a fellow monk went to seek his advice, and Abba Moses replied, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”* My little dank room in our green trailer served as my first monastic cell. From an early age, I have meditated on God’s word day and night, trusted him, and been haunted by his presence.
A Child in the Kingdom of God
From reading the Scriptures, I knew what God said, and I believed he was for me and with me. Yet I didn’t know how to integrate well what I learned. But around the age of twenty, I no longer felt like an adult in a child-sized body. It was then that I started becoming a child in the kingdom of God. What did this redeemed childhood look like?
The Benedictines have a motto that guides their life: Ora et labora, or, “pray and work.” To that I’d add “play.” As a child and as a teenager I played very little. Life was so hard and things were so serious that I was seldom playful. But as God began to restore the years the locust had eaten (Joel 2:25), God began giving me a new childhood. My body grows older, but inside I grow young. For example, as a child, I didn’t play with dolls or stuffed animals (I had very few). But now I have two that are as alive to me as the rabbit in the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. I can play with my daughters and can understand why children delight in stuffed animals. My imagination has been enlarged along with my soul. I see more and more how God is at play in the universe.
I don’t need to allow worry to strangle me anymore while I feverishly try to figure things out on my own or for my family. I’ve learned better how to take Jesus’s yoke, or teaching, upon me and in doing so find rest for my soul (Matt. 11:28-30). I don’t strive or spin nearly as much because, on most days, I really believe that if I seek the kingdom first, all the things I need, my daily bread, will be given to me. Like a child, I cling to God (often by clinging to the body of believers), tug on his robe, and hurl myself into his embrace when I need to be comforted or have any need.
As a child and teenager, I slept very little because I worried about my parents and the problems we faced. Although I still have to practice the discipline of casting—and leaving—my cares upon the Lord, I sleep better. And daily I continue to learn how to rest in him.
I’ve learned how to see the world better from God’s perspective. That allows for peace to invade my soul, and it also helps me to learn to love others better—especially those who mistreat me. And paying attention has come to me in another way: I am deeply attuned to my surroundings and am more present in the present.
For example, my husband often comments about me seeing every creepy crawly on the sidewalk and every cat bounding about in the fields to God knows where. My mind is no longer a million miles away. More and more I am just here—present to the world and those before me.
Wilderness experiences, whether they are major crises or moments of quiet desperation, are not something I’d wish upon others. But in the wilderness, God showed me how to live. It is where I grew up in God, became a child of the kingdom, and it is where he has given me the gifts of play, rest, and attention.
*The Library of Christian Classics Volume XII (1958) http://archive.org/stream/libraryofchristi008770mbp/libraryofchristi008770mbp_djvu.txt (accessed December 26, 2013)