“Wilderness of Woe”
Elizabeth King Mills is a name that probably doesn’t breed familiarity with most folks. This gifted poet and writer lived her life in relative obscurity. Born in 1805, in the town of Middlesex, England, Elizabeth would live a short life, dying on April 21, 1829. at the tender age of twenty-four. That brief of a life span doesn’t generally afford someone an opportunity to leave a lasting mark upon this planet, but Elizabeth managed to accomplish that goal by way of her pen. I don’t know much about her brief sojourn here many years ago, but I do understand the anticipation deep within her soul, for her words expose that yearning in her heart for a heavenly home: O land of rest, for thee I sigh, when will the moment come, When I shall lay my armor by and dwell in peace at home? Deep within my homesick soul, I too have that desire to reach past the veil of this earthly home and view the heavenly shore, to experience the peace of that ultimate rest.
When we welcomed the year 2020 with fireworks and excitement many months ago, none of us could have anticipated the rough road that was in store for us. Regardless of social status, gender, or age, we have all felt the weight of this pandemic, and all the ugly devastation left in its wake…lost lives, lost employment, disrupted graduations, weddings, and family gatherings, confused children thrown into a world of masked faces and unfamiliar schedules, and on and on the list goes. As I sat in my socially-distanced seat at church this past Sunday morning, pondering the changes of the past few dismal months, it would be Elizabeth’s words that would turn my eyes toward Jesus. As we sang the words of her poem, We’ll work till Jesus Comes, one line of rich lyrics would sear into my heart…This world’s a wilderness of woe, this world is not my home. A wilderness of woe, yes, those words could certainly be stamped upon the calendar year of 2020. But this wise hymn writer did not leave us with a message of doom and gloom, but with a challenging task, a challenge to work till Jesus comes.
As I prepared a lesson for my littles today, I found myself pondering the life of the apostle Paul. I’m sure this man of God shared Elizabeth’s longing for a heavenly home as he penned for us a reminder of the afflictions he endured on earth: “…in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequents, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one (ponder that dismal reality for a moment). Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeying often, in perils of waters…of robbers…of mine own countrymen…by the heathen…in the city…in the wilderness…in the sea…among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness…in cold and nakedness.” Whoa, talk about a wilderness of woe! But although this man was no stranger to the valley experience, Paul had an incredible ability to keep his focus, his goal, his desire, upon Christ, pursuing a life that did not dwell on the difficulties and ugliness of his life. And despite that fact that this preacher, with a twinge of homesickness, could state “…to die is gain,” he made this his motto: “…to live is Christ.”
In stubborn disregard of the trials of his life, Paul would preach Christ… in the synagogues, along the riverside, in the dankness of a prison cell, in the home of a tent maker, in the audience of royalty…anywhere! He would boldly take the message of a risen Savior to kings, to soldiers, to statesmen, to Jews, to Gentiles, to idol worshipers, to the demon possessed, to men, to women…to anyone who would listen. Knowing that some day his race would be completed and that golden shore would come into view, Paul decided that he would devote himself feverishly to the cause of Christ until he reached that heavenly mansion prepared for him, until he was gathered home.
With a bit of shame I finished singing that simple hymn, reminded by the piercing conviction of the Holy Spirit that although I long to lay my armor by and dwell in peace at home, I am commanded to work till Jesus comes. Perhaps this difficult year could take on a different look if I, instead of complaining about my lot in life, committed to spreading His love, grace, and comfort to a world so very hungry for that land of rest.
Philippians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
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