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Embracing the Wilderness

March 14, 2014

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The wilderness.  On Sunday at church we had a wilderness double whammy.  Our sermon in church was about Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he was tempted by Satan.  Then, in Sunday School, we watched the first lesson in Adam Hamilton’s series, The Walk, which, amongst other things, discussed the wilderness.  More of the emphasis by Hamilton was on the Temptation of Jesus, but it was the wilderness which I noticed the most.

Hamilton showed what the wilderness looks like where Jesus spent his forty days and nights.  It’s a rather desolate looking place.  It reminded me of parts of New Mexico–mesas (mountains), scrub bushes, minimal trees, minimal water, minimal growth.

I can remember vividly the first time I drove from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It was a spiritual experience.  The desolation and loneliness was soothing.  Here was a place, I thought, where I couldn’t escape God.  Here was a place where my need for God was blatant.  There was no hiding from God in the desert nor could I pretend that I didn’t need God when there was so much space and nothingness.  I understood why Georgia O’Keefe  (and countless others) was drawn to the area–it was raw and powerful and breathtaking.

I noticed when we read about Jesus’s temptation that for forty days he was in the desert before he was tempted.  What happened in those forty days in a land where survival was difficult and staying by water essential?  Later this week, I started reading Walter Brueggeman’s new book on the Sabbath.  I immediately recognized the correlation between Jesus’s forty days in the desert and the Hebrew’s forty years in the desert.  When you look at the map, you realize it would not have taken forty years for the Hebrews to have gotten from point A to point B (which is demonstrated when Moses’s father-in-law comes to visit him for a while in the dessert and then returns home).  The point of the desert, for both the Hebrews and for Jesus wasn’t to get somewhere–it was to prepare them for something.  The Hebrews were being turned into a people again that were different than their neighbors in both their god and their culture.  Jesus had just been announced as being the Son of God with whom God was well pleased (which, if I may stretch things a bit, isn’t that different than what God had told their Hebrews in their Exodus from Egypt).

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Wilderness experiences are necessary parts of our spiritual growth. In this past week, my ideas of the wilderness has changed.  I used to think of wilderness experiences as the times when I felt most distant from God.  I roamed aimlessly wondering if I really mattered or if there even was a God.  Wilderness experiences, I thought, were those times when life was very hard, when I suffered great loss and/or struggled.

Looking at the wilderness experiences, I wonder if maybe I had it a little wrong.  Yes, wilderness experiences are hard, desolate, lonely times.  We probably have great hunger during those experiences, whether the hunger be for actual food, a sense of normalcy and control, or for companionship.  For Jesus and the Hebrews though, I suspect the wilderness wasn’t the time when they felt distant from God.  I wonder what conversations God and and Jesus had in Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness.  I know those couldn’t have been times when Jesus ignored God and we have no reason to believe that God left Jesus alone as well.  For the Hebrews, we are told in Exodus and Deuteronomy that God was quite evident.  God led them by a fire and a cloud–Moses saw him on Mt. Sinai.   Our interactions with God in the wilderness shape who we are and who we are being called to become.

So what about me?  I’ve often thought of those years when I was at home with my two children and then three children as a bit of wilderness years.  I wondered if God was really with me, really there at all.  On those afternoons when I would hide in the laundry room and look out the front window, I wondered where God was.  My humanity stared me straight in the eyes.  I couldn’t do this raising three children thing, especially around supper time when I was try to cook and deal with fighting, needy kids, and a crying baby.

Or maybe my wilderness experience was Curtis was diagnosed and treated for testicular cancer.  Isaac was just six months old and had only just sleeping for more than three hours at a time.  John was 2 and Madeleine 4–none of them in school full time.  I made myself a playlist, remembering a song I heard in college back in my listening to Christian music phase.  The playlist was full of love songs and songs reminding me to trust.  I tried to drive down the road, listening to my music, remembering to breathe and not to cry the whole time.  The driving also seized me the most.

I know God was with me during that time.  I know I experienced God’s love and felt his presence.  More than most I could think of, those were my true wilderness experiences because I knew God was there.  I could see God around me and trusted more during that time than many other points in my life.  The wilderness can be desolate and lonely.  The wilderness is also full of beauty and reminders that we need God.  May I remember the wilderness even when I am in the land of plenty for God has been present.  God has provided.  God will always be.  I am never alone, not in the lush river valleys nor in the rugged deserts.  Thanks be to God.

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