At the Edge of Wilderness

From my parking spot at the very end of the road that is accessible to private vehicles in Denali National Park, I began exploring along the edge of the Savage River. Looking west as the dawn tinted a few of the clouds with its warm light, I was struck by the utter wildness of the landscape stretched out before me. The far off peaks of the Alaska Range beckon, but the river flows swiftly, a real and tangible barrier to the first steps of the journey. Having driven hundreds of miles (the night before) in order to witness this pristine morning, I actually had no intention of traveling further into the park. My plans were to head East over the Denali Highway, but when I began processing this image, months after the trip, the wide wildness continued to speak to me. The photograph tells a story (at least to me) of longing and hesitation, beauty and uncertainty, and looking to the future.

Waking at the Edge of Wilderness

More than most people my age, I am surrounded by thoughts of the future. Teaching not just high school students, but primarily upperclassmen, the atmosphere around me is permeated by unanswered questions about college, finances, careers, relationships, and dreams. Sometimes I watch the final year of high school unfold for a student with a sincere longing to reclaim some of that feeling of having “your whole life ahead of you” – the feeling of standing at the edge of wilderness, but I am not blind to the real burden that uncertainty places on those very same students. I’ve known some incredibly bright and talented young people who very nearly buckled under the pressure leading up to graduation. But paralyzing fear of the future is not unique to high school seniors.

Every one of us experiences uncertainty, from poignant fear to persistent doubt. We experience it because we are not in control of all things at all times, and more than that, we very rarely seem to be in control even of our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. If uncertainty is an inevitability in our lives, along the lines of death and taxes, what are we to do? What are some steps we can take so that our passion for life grows instead of shrinking when we contemplate the vast wildness of the unknown?

I think that one pretty obvious solution to our struggle with anxiety about the future is to learn from the experiences of others. In the stories from their lives, we can discover what happens when life doesn’t go according to plan. A particular life and story that has been an enormous encouragement to me is that of Katie Davis. In her autobiography, Kisses from Katie, she recounts the plans, trials, fears, and joys of following her passion for service into life as a twenty-something-year-old (single) mother of twelve in the city of Jinja, Uganda. In a chapter where she recounts the story of an imaginary society whose efforts to prevent the unknown result in their eventual imprisonment within the barriers they had erected for protection, Ms. Davis also writes:

…mediocrity and abundance, comfort and ease, do seem to be safe choices for many people, myself included. In stark contrast, leaving our possessions, following Jesus when we don’t have a well defined plan, and entertaining strangers – well, that does sound a little scary. But what if, just beyond that risk, just beyond the fear is a life better than anything we have ever imagined: life to the fullest. (Katie Davis, Kisses from Katie, 101)

The entire book has blessed me with a very palpable picture of a life where the best laid plans could never have resulted in producing even a small fraction of the joy that was waiting beyond the risk. At best, we can hope to orchestrate the satisfaction we can envision, but Katie Davis reminds us that the fullest future is actually outside our capacity to envision!

The stories of other people’s lives may very well lead us directly into the next means for embracing the future’s wildness, which is the careful contemplation of our own lives. On the one hand, there are, no doubt, times in every person’s past that she or he could point to as an instance where playing it safe was the wise choice, where apprehension payed off. On the other hand, I’m convinced that those occurrences are seldom acquainted with our richest happiness. Instead, I have found that my moments of greatest joy have required trusting someone, having faith in the goodness of God, and finding courage to face the possibility of pain. My marriage is an ideal example. In the midst of what many would call an easy life, my commitment to continuing in permanent and consistent relationship with my wife, Breea, has sometimes been the source of anger, embarrassment, and hurt. Breea and I are both imperfect, and that means our relationship is far from perfect, but hundreds of the best moments of my life would vanish if I could somehow go back and undo my promise to be her husband and life-long companion. Similarly, anyone who has welcomed a child into their family should be able to point to that time when fear of risk was completely erased by the experience of the reward.

A final, and preeminent, support in our embracing an untrammeled future is the the truth that, while we are not in control of all things at all times, there is one who is. And He is good. Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the Savage River, or the Mendenhall Glacier leaves you feeling small, powerless, and frail. Those feelings are an expression of the reality that in spite of your best laid plans, you have no idea what tomorrow will bring. The realization and acceptance of our own limitations is not the starting place for fear. Instead, it is the beginning of relief if we will let the wilderness lead us into the recognition of the God who holds it all in the palm of His hand. I don’t direct the weather to achieve my daily goals (there would probably be a good deal more sunny weekends in Juneau if I did), but God does. I don’t guide other people into my life in order to shape or reshape the way I look at the world, but God does. If God really is big enough and valuable enough to warrant both our trust and our worship, he must be a God who can say:

Remember this, and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other, I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isaiah 46:8-11 – ESV)

God is in complete control of all the wild future we face, but if that is all we know it would be no point of comfort. The wilderness itself is only an extension or reflection of God’s untamed nature. He is every bit as overwhelming as the sprawling tundra, as unknowable as the ocean depths or the distant stars, and as uncontainable as the mountain summits…but at the same time, he is infinitely good and brimming with love for you and for me. God says, “I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) In his elaborate series of allegorical children’s novels, C. S. Lewis describes Aslan (God) in this way:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 80 – emphasis added)

A God who is both sovereign and good is the only God who can bring “hope” out of an unknowable future. Knowing Him allows you to put one foot in front of the other – to walk into the wilderness with more joyful excitement than apprehension. When we learn from the experience of others, consider the patterns from our past, and rest in the reality of God; the wildest future is the future we will long for!