Dack Van Orden was born and raised in Idaho Falls, ID. He currently lives in the Houston Texas area where he and his wife are the parents of three daughters and one bonus daughter. He has served in a variety of callings within the Church, most of which have been in various youth callings. His favorite was teaching early morning seminary. He currently serves in the high council as the stake Young Men president.
There are several examples throughout the scriptures of people fleeing to, escaping into, and being led by the Lord to wildernesses. Generally an individual or family will journey through a wilderness to a promise land. They typically will be escaping oppression or wickedness to a destination of promised blessings and rest.
From Wilderness to Promised Land
Moses and the children of Israel wandered in their wilderness for 40 years. In the initial stages the children of Israel longed to return to Egypt, even if it meant going back into slavery. They constantly questioned and overwhelmed Moses with complaints and disobedience. Through Moses, God tried to refine the people through temple worship and covenants. They received the priesthood and a higher law, but they hardened their hearts and the Lord removed Moses out of their midst and the Holy Priesthood also. Moses led them to the boarders of the promise land only to be turned away due to their lack of faith.
Nephi and Lehi were directed by the Lord to go in to the wilderness. They were guided by the Liahona, which worked according to their faithfulness. They experienced heartaches and losses of loved ones. They experienced the betrayal of family members, but they also experienced growth and maturity.
Lehi, while in the wilderness, had a dream where he was lost in a dark and dreary wilderness where he wandered for the space of many hours. He eventually was led by his angelic guide to the tree of life where he experienced the fruit of the tree and the joy it brings. Later, Nephi was able to experience an interpretation of that dream in which he too was led by a guide.
In our day, the Saints fled persecution and mobs to the Rocky Mountains. The Saints in Nauvoo delayed their departure into the wilderness until the temple was completed so they could receive the ordinances of salvation. Their journey was full of trials and heartache. It was also a journey of miracles and blessings. They too were led by a prophet who received instruction and direction from the Lord. Although the pioneers traveled as a group, many among the group experienced loneliness, rejection or loss of family and friends. These trials were not a sign of God’s displeasure or evidence that God had forgotten them. On the contrary, the isolation and suffering of the pioneers were a signal that God was mindful of them and had in fact chosen them for tremendous responsibilities and blessings. A member of the Willie Handcart Company described his experience in the wilderness as
“the price he paid to become acquainted with God.”
Shortly after his baptism Jesus went to the wilderness to be with God. While he was tempted by Satan during this time, he was also able to fast and pray. It was after his time in the wilderness that he began his mortal ministry.
Wildernesses then become a place of trials, spiritual growth, covenants, testing, and temptations. It is common for there to be a spiritual guide or director to help those traveling through the wilderness to find their way. Wildernesses are often a place of both isolation and transformation. In many cases, those traveling in the wilderness receive revelation or visions. They often enter into covenants or participate in sacred ordinances. In each of the examples given there were extreme challenges and promised blessings. There were opposing forces and in some cases disobedience and murmuring. There were those that wanted to go back to the old ways and lifestyles they were more familiar with. Through strong leadership and faith, the parties were able to push forward and obtain their land of promise.
Our Pandemic Wilderness
For the most part, 2020 started uneventfully with our regular activities and routines. However, as we headed into Spring, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. Fear and instability followed. Financial markets and major corporations closed their doors. This led to a quarantine, school closures, zoom meetings and holding sacrament in our homes. What initially started as a three-week shutdown quickly became three months, and now we are into years of change.
Some of us lost jobs and loved ones during the pandemic. For many of us, the past few years have brought unanticipated trials and challenges. All of us have been impacted in our callings and church services. Like the Saints of Nauvoo, our ability to go to the temple and worship was taken away by external circumstances. Each of us had to navigate holding church in our homes. I am positive that there are several other trials and challenges that many of us faced that are too numerous to cover here.
Recognizing Next Steps
Initially, I would argue that most of us felt this would be a small adjustment to schedules and routines and that soon enough things would return to normal again. As time went on we moved to a more home centered worship. This took on some new adjustments. I’m sure some of you, as I did, began to enjoy this new self-managed routine. Others may have struggled with it. I personally enjoyed this sense of freedom from a set Sunday schedule. I enjoyed less meetings and more time with my family. In some cases, we were able to have incredibly spiritual sacrament meetings and Sunday worship in our home.
As time went on I began to feel an uneasy feeling. I began to worry about those I ministered to. As stake young men president, I began to grow more concerned about the young men across the stake. We had just started the new Children and Youth program. As a young men’s presidency, we were starting to get some traction with the program, but then it felt as though we hit the pause button for months. I began to worry that I wasn’t doing all I could within my stewardship. I had been lulled into a state of ease and a path of least resistance. I wondered… had I become complacent? Was I much like the Nephites camped in Bountiful or the Jaredites basking in the sun on the seashore? Had I survived the initial shock of being thrust into a new world, and now found myself to be perfectly happy to be in this new less demanding routine? Was I justifying my lack of involvement due to COVID restrictions? But what could I do? I can’t visit with the young men. I couldn’t plan a large stake young men’s activity. The more time went on the more I began to feel out of touch in my calling. I knew there was more to be done.
Our Unknown Wilderness
Sisters and brothers, I submit to you that the pandemic became a wilderness of the unknown for each of us. It became a world of uncertainty and discomfort. We can draw parallels of our situation to other disciples that were in an unknown and uncharted wilderness. While our wilderness looks quite different than that of Moses or Nephi, we still face challenges.
The challenge for each of us is what were we going to do with it? Were we going to continue to wander around without direction telling ourselves that we will get back to it when things return to normal? Is our promise land and the blessings we seek just over the mountain ridge if we will just exercise faith? Is the Lord trying to stretch us and push us to grow in ways we haven’t before? Is this a time where we can refine and tune our spirits to receive powerful and personal revelation?
Applying Insights from Our Pandemic Wilderness
With or without a pandemic, some of the many challenges we face in our callings and ministering is that we need to regularly think outside of the box. We are often in uncharted territory. We will need to look for new ways to have classes and activities. How to run a primary under pandemic restrictions and evolve to possible “better ways” post-pandemic? How can we impact a 14–15-year-old Sunday school class on zoom and in person? How do we minister in a more meaningful way than we did before? I am not here to tell you how to serve in your callings or as a minister. Each of us are entitled to personal revelation within our stewardship. The Spirit knows the unique needs of those you serve and can guide you through this process. May I offer three thoughts to ponder?
- Think of ways to create a stronger community within our wards and classes. Part of the challenge with zoom and online meetings was it felt very disconnected. Then and now, we can learn how to take a moment in class to invite someone to share about their lives, how they are dealing with things. Plus, continue these community building activities whenever possible.
- Encourage and engage in more discussion. Share authentic and real challenges that we are facing. Invite others to do the same.
- It is important to realize that there are some that have gotten out of the routine of attending regular church activities. Now more than ever we need to plan well thought out activities that will be inviting and engaging.
“Discipleship is not a spectator sport. We cannot expect to experience the blessings of faith by standing inactive on the sidelines any more than we can experience the benefits of health by sitting on a sofa watching sporting events on television and giving advice to the athletes. And yet for some, spectator discipleship is a preferred if not a primary way of worshiping. Ours is not a secondhand religion. We cannot receive the blessings of the gospel by merely observing the good that others do. We need to get off the sidelines and practice what we preach.”
Sisters and brothers, I always try to be as realistic as I can be. I understand that there are always challenges to be faced as we try to serve in the Church. During the pandemic there where many restrictions that limited the way we had done things in the past. During that time, I longed for things to return to the way they were before. I was tired of wearing a mask and not giving people a big hug or handshake. However, one of many lessons learned is we can’t wait for things to return to “normal” before we act. In speaking about the children and youth program, Brother Steve Lund, General Young Men president taught,
“Against headwinds of pandemic and calamity, bringing about the new Children and Youth program is still a work in progress, but there is urgency. Our youth cannot wait for the world to right itself before they come to know the Savior. Some are making decisions even now that they would not make if they understood their true identities, and His.”
Reaching Out in Every Wilderness
This truth is applicable before, during and after big changes that occur in the World. We can’t wait for things to return to “normal” before we act. I promise you that Satan did not pushed the pause button to wait for the world to return to normal. He was and is out in full force, and if recent political, economic, and social unrest have taught us anything, it is that Satan is upping his game, not backing off. This means more than ever we need to reach out to those in need. Ponder about how we can engage those we serve around and with. Seek the Lord’s guidance and revelation as we wander through this wilderness we are in.
Now more than ever, pay attention to those that are not attending activities and classes that we hold. Let them know they miss them and that we are thinking of them. Reach out to those that may have lost a loved one or a job during that time or any time. They are hurting and need to feel the love of the Savior through you. As we do these things, the Lord will sanctify our efforts and bless us with guidance.
This pandemic, and any other world-wide challenge, has never caught the Lord by surprise. We are never alone in our journey through the wilderness. He is our shadow by day and our pillar by night. He has a great work for us to do and he will strengthen us as we strive to do that work.