Worship in the Wilderness

This past year, I had one of the highest honors of writing and recording worship songs for my church’s recent project, New Sound, alongside my brother, best friends, and mentors. The entire process of this project was a God-dream, filled with so many stories and unforgettable moments. One of the songs I was able to help write and sing on the EP is called Unfailing. It’s very close to my heart for countless reasons, but I wanted to share the story behind the lyrics as it exemplifies where so many of us find ourselves in the pursuit of our purpose and God’s presence in the middle of our seasons of waiting or wandering.

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Chasing shadows in the night

A shame too great for me to hide

Then your grace came and found me

And carried me to the light

In this wilderness and darkness I still feel you here

You sing over me and cast away all my fear

You will lead me with your light

In my wandering Your Presence never leaves my side

I will make a place in this desert and sing for you alone are King of my heart

There’s no hiding from your Presence

It’s your glory, God, surrounding me

Where can I go to escape your love?

Your love will always be unfailing

 

These lyrics serve as a metaphor to the “wilderness” seasons that we face in life. Just like the Israelites wandered the desert for years on end in search of the Promised Land, in our pursuit of Christ we often find ourselves in seasons of what seems like darkness and desert. One moment our spirits are on fire for God and ready to walk through whatever He calls us to, then something drastic happens and we ask God, “Where are you? Why am I here? I thought you promised...?” The fire that once burned inside our hearts suddenly shifts to doubt and we become clouded by doubt, wondering if we are still on the right path.

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Images by Sydney Payne

It seems like I’m in this season about every month, to be honest. God speaks his promises and affirmation, then I have one bad day and suddenly it seems like I’m in the middle of a desert left to fend for myself. Which is far from the truth. This song is a representation of our spiritual condition, but it is also inspired by a real-life situation where I was legitimately stuck in the middle of the wilderness - in literal darkness.

On New Year’s Eve in 2016, my friends and I were at a bonfire and worship night at the edge of town with a group of people from our college ministry. It was a really fun night, hanging out with friends and dreaming about the next year. A few of us had to be at church early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes, got in my friend’s truck, and left first. Looking back, it wasn’t the wisest decision as we actually had no recollection of how to get out of the area. This particular area was hilly and had narrow, winding dirt roads so intense that if you looked at Google Maps it would look like a two year old drew them. On our way out, we took a wrong turn and got utterly lost - with no cell phone service or sense of direction. Many times, we got stuck in deep ruts in the road, and had to get out of the vehicle and help my friend’s truck move in reverse. In the process of pushing her little truck, her tires kicked up rocks and dust - hitting me in the eye - which only added insult to injury at that point. We wandered for quite some time, trying desperately to find a way home, for what seemed like forever.

I wish I could say that we never gave up and figured it out, but we didn’t. We gave up. We sat in the truck, grumpy and upset. An hour and a half later we finally found cell signal to call our friends (who were now home) to come rescue us. We sat in the dark, cold unknown, surrounded by coyotes and other animals that made scary noises. My mind was playing the worst case scenarios over and over in my head. My eye hurt, I smelled like bonfire smoke, it was 2 AM, and I just wanted to go home.

Yet while we waited, I felt the Holy Spirit speak to me.

You can worship me in the wilderness just as you did at the altar.

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Images by Sydney Payne

I felt like the world stopped spinning for a moment. As I sat in the car, I closed my eyes and felt a rush of peace sweep over my soul. I sat quietly and worshipped while we waited for our rescue. There was no music. I couldn’t even think of the right words, but I had to choose to posture my soul and surrender in silence. I faced the reality that I was stuck in the desert, but I realized that His Presence was just as real as it was moments ago at the bonfire- therefore His peace, protection, joy, and unfailing love was still available for me to take hold in the midst of my fear and frustration. Letting go of my mere fickle emotions, I simply did what I was created to do: be with God.

I can’t even describe that feeling of relief when I saw the headlights of our friend’s car coming to rescue us, illuminating the whole area. Finally, we could see our way - and they led us home. 

This story is proof of the funny way God works in my life, because six months later, I found myself sitting at a coffee shop trying to write lyrics to meet a deadline for a song that aligned with the theme of "God’s Presence". At the time, I had just quit my job and was faced with countless questions for God - “Where are you? You’ve taken me this far, but what are you doing? Where am I going?” In front of me was my little leather journal opened to a blank page. I looked down and asked God for the right words. I needed something to strengthen my faith. Immediately my mind went back to that dramatic night on New Year’s Eve, where God met me in the darkest desert. I remembered the still, small voice that called me to worship despite my questions and frustrations. God took me back to that very moment, and I wrote the line I will make a place in this desert and sing for you alone are King of my heart and from there, the rest of the lyrics just came rushing out. That moment became the starting point for the process of writing Unfailing.

When you listen to this song, I pray that God’s Presence would be as real to you as it was for me in the middle of the desert. When you are faced with chaos or uncertainty, remember the company of your Creator is behind you, beside you, and before you. You can worship in the desert seasons just as you did when you first met Jesus, because in the desert places, He sits and waits for you to speak and commune with Him. It may be uncomfortable, but you have to stretch, create space, and expand your capacity to worship deeper - for that is where your strength and peace is renewed. In the quiet times, at the burning bush, is where we find our true identity and discover new avenues of the unfailing heart of our Father.

If you’re familiar with the story of Joshua leading the Israelites, you can remember he was in the middle of a desert when God said to him “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

When you become aware of His Presence, everything that He is through the Holy Spirit is readily available to you. If you need strength and courage, ask and He’s sure to provide it. You won’t be able to make it on your own, but by keeping your soul in a posture of surrender and fixing your eyes on the Light of the World, He’ll guide you by the hand through the darkness into the glorious future He has planned ahead for you. Exchange the comfort of the noise for the silence and clear communion of Jesus at burning bushes in the wilderness, where He is seen clearly. Make a place in the desert you are in: chase the quiet and worship for when you carry the mark of Christ, your feet are planted on holy ground.

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Eternal God of Heaven, my hope that never ends

All Glory, Praise forever! My Jesus, My Savior!

My light and sure salvation, you guide me with your hand

All Glory, Praise forever! My Jesus, My Savior!

Tori Elliot Comment