Wilderness

The thrill of victory and the agony of the wilderness

We recently watched the movie, Molly’s Game. Not to spoil it, but Molly’s story runs on two levels; there is her rise and fall in the competitive world of Olympic ski competition. Then there is her rise and fall — fall, as in criminal indictment — as the runner of a high stakes poker game. In both stories, Molly has the rush of victory and the agony of defeat. While going for a medal at the winter Olympics, she has a fall that nearly kills her. She spent many months in the wilderness of a hospital. Jesus is baptized, sees heaven open up. God claims him as his son (scholars debate about how much he knew before this event described in Mark 1:9-12) and then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the agony of the wilderness, fasting for forty days and being harassed by wild animals and demons.

What are we to learn from this? The higher your jump, the more profound your fall? That is what you think you are seeing when you go to a movie like Molly’s Game. But two greater truths emerge: 1) That her inner sense of character, her soul, comes to the front because of her fall. She has the opportunity to “sell out” and shorten her stay in the wilderness, but she chooses instead the moral high ground. 2) We don’t know ourselves until we go into the dark place. We must either walk through the wilderness or live forever in the shallows of life.

What do we learn from Jesus being driven out into the wilderness? 1) That Jesus chose it. He chose fasting. He completed the full forty days that he had signed up for. We too must choose to be spiritual people, and that means suffering. 2) That the fullness of who we are as people only emerges after we go where we are totally empty.

Sunday, February 18, 2018
Lent 1

Void Busters

Some people take a long time to get to the point. The Bible takes ten words to get to it. Ten words and we are told that before God spoke the “Word” the earth was a formless nothing. All of creation was face-less. Nothing had any distinction. It was dark. It was meaningless. Total entropy — physics speak for everything being without information, chaotic, and at its lowest energy state. Goo. The pits. 

I’m glad not to have known it. When we have trauma. When we lose a loved one. When our hopes are dashed. When the doctor says “cancer” or “terminal.” We visit the outer most edge of this hell. But God’s spirit has already hovered over this void. The creator came to know the total accumulation of everything that depresses us. It was dark. God said, “Let there be light.”

This is how the Bible begins. It doesn’t begin with an argument against evolution. It begins by telling us that there was once such a deep hopelessness that there could never be anything. God acted. He spoke into being the complexity of creation. I suspect that God used evolution, for Darwin tells us that this process enables there to be diversity. Life is bent on filling every niche. It is bent on being good, because this is what God spoke into existence. 

When we lack purpose in life, here’s the point. In less than ten words the Bible can restore our sense of wonder and hope. I’m glad to have known that.

When bad things happen to us, we poke our minds outside of the created order that God has gifted us with, and for a moment, feel the pre-existent void. We don’t have to stay there. It, however, gives us a new perspective. From this darkness, we can be creative.

Sunday, January 7, 2018
Epiphany 1

Ready to Hear?

Sometimes we are sent out into the wilderness to learn things. It wasn’t until the people under Moses in the Exodus reached the middle of the Sinai dessert that God taught them the ten commandments. Jesus went out into the wilderness to prepare for the active portion of his ministry. He also sought out mountain retreats and desolate spaces on a regular basis, so that he might be ready to learn, to pray, and to  renew his commitment to God’s will. The crowds that Jesus would teach, had to first go into the wilderness and there, be taught by John the Baptist. We, yes each of us, are sent out into the wilderness to learn things.

There’s a bit of new age (popular) philosophy that runs, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” The biblical version of this is, “When you get yourself to the wilderness and have nothing, then God will send someone to teach you.” Sometimes we are sent to the wilderness by trauma, loss, or grief. Sometimes we intentionally have to choose time away, just as Jesus often did. We are too busy to be taught. We don’t have time for spiritual things. When a disruption comes, an accident, an illness, a loss of the ability to go-go-go; then we stamp our feet and pray “Lord, get me out of this wilderness.” If God answers our prayer, it is our loss. We will never learn.

If you are in the wilderness, take hope. If you are in the busy place, be ready.

see also wilderness voice
 

Sunday, December 10, 2017
Advent 2

Failure to Fast

There are fifty-nine national parks in our country, but most Americans suffer from a lack of wilderness. Most of us have the ability to skip a meal anytime we want, yet Christianity today is suffering from a great neglect of spiritual disciplines, including fasting. Jesus went into the wilderness, as the song says, to fast and pray for us. We each have people that we should be fasting and praying for. Our spiritual disciplines this lent, should be brave enough to do what ever it takes to gain the moral high ground in our lives.

 

My cousin Giselle recently asked me if Protestant’s fasted for Lent, or if that was just a Catholic thing. I replied as follows:

 

A Psalm for the Oppressed

This past week was Martin Luther King Day. I think it is important that we remember him, not just as a leader of a minority group in our society, but as an example of how to respond to oppression. Sometimes oppression is systemic, like the racism is that still infects America. Sometimes oppression is personal, as when we are passed over at work because of our gender or age, or when a family member uses cruel manipulation to keep us in our place.The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you from a loved one. Perhaps you are feeling oppressed. What does this Psalm 27 say to you now?

 

For in the day of trouble

Sunday, January 22, 2017
Epiphany 3

Rivers in the Wilderness

There is a wonderful refrain in Isaiah 43, “I will make [for you], a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”  This is the promise that God gives to us just before we launch into a new adventure. This is the promise that we hear just before something traumatic upsets the fruit basket of our lives. It’s Lent and the disciples are following Jesus towards Jerusalem. Things are about to get interesting. For the last three years, the Jesus movement has been enjoying the quiet hills of  Galilee and steadily growing as people come out for picnics with the greatest story teller that ever lived. Now Jesus says that we are going to where he will be betrayed into the hands of angry men and crucified. Trauma. And after trauma, wilderness. When it happens to us, can we remember the promise about streams in the desert? 

 

Sunday, March 13, 2016
Lent 4

God is Sufficient

The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. It may be that someone, or an organization, is oppressing you. You may be driven out of your home or separated from those you love. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you the one person that matters most to you. What does this Psalm say to you now?

 

For in the day of trouble

    [The Lord] will keep me safe in his dwelling;

he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent

Sunday, February 21, 2016
Lent 2

Does the Voice in the Wilderness Matter?

Every four years our country makes a show of sending the presidential candidates through the rural villages of Iowa and New Hampshire. For a few fleeting moments, common people seem to matter. They have a voice in Ottumwa.  Individuals in Concord can ask the next president if he or she knows the price of a gallon of milk. Yet the Bible speaks about the voice in the wilderness as being something more than just symbolic. We are all made to travel through wilderness from time to time. Life is enriched by trauma and displacement. There the soft voice of God has a chance to rise above the static. John the Baptist isn’t just a foot note in the story of Christ. He is an embodiment of all the reasons that God sends us out into the wilderness.

 

Sunday, December 6, 2015
Avent 2

John and Austerity

Meditation consists of intentionally eliminating the things that are so familiar that we have allowed them access to our souls. Spirituality begins with naming our inner idols and the material albatrosses hanging around our necks. So, Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Then, he immediately goes further into the wilderness for forty days. These two events lack noise. They lack clutter. What specifically is missing from these two events?

 

Hierarchy - John says I need to be baptized by you. What would happen if, for today, the preacher comes into the congregation and says, “I need to be taught by you?” Jesus sets the example. Hierarchal structures are constructed to promote specific outcomes; in business, having a boss enables a group of employees to be more profitable. In times of war, having a general increases the chances of winning a battle.Over the course of our spiritual development, the things that hierarchal structures aid become our most pernicious idols. Jesus here, and elsewhere, reverses the master-servant structure in order to dispel its hold on our lives.  

 

Sunday, January 11, 2015
Epiphany 1

A Race of Ones Own

I intentionally shy away from sports metaphors when preaching. Too often they only serve to reinforce the winnings-the-only-thing and the ends-justify-the-means obsession of American unspirituality. Hebrews, like Paul (I Corinthians 9:2, Galatians 2:2), uses the image of a foot race to speak about the spiritual commitment needed in our personal lives.  She writes, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) and remember that we are being cheered on by an invisible crowd of witnesses (the saints of old). The flow of the unknown author of Hebrews’ thinking, reminds me how Jesus called us to pick up our own cross daily (Luke 9:23). We each can have a race, or a cross, of our own.

 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What a difference a day makes...

‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’

Today I picked up a book about how blogs are changing the world. The book began with the story of 9-11-2001, as it unfolded in the blog-o-sphere. It was a day that changed many things in America. The day before 911, web pages that provided news content were valued less than the paper they weren’t printed on. In January of 2000, Time Warner had spent half a gazillion dollars to purchase AOL.  In March of 2000, the dot.com stock market bubble burst, making AOL practically worthless. Everyone associated with posting news on the web slinked off the stage in disgrace. On 911, all that changed. The real-time posting of events and commentary throughout the tragedy rolled away any shame the new fangled media might have felt. Before that day, no one would have expected the internet to become the dominant provider of news content that it is today.

 

Joshua 5:9 tells us how on a particular ‘Today,’ God rolled away the disgrace of the children of Israel. They had been slaves in Egypt. Then they became pilgrims wondering across the Sinai desert and depending upon quails, manna, and magical water bearing rocks to stay alive. But this day, this today, they became inheritors of a promised land. On that day, they celebrated the passover with joy and ate the first fruits of Palestine. What is more important, that day they stopped thinking like slaves. They stopped being homeless people. They start being ‘Israel,’ the people who God fights along side.

Sunday, March 10, 2013
Lent 4

Moses

Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. He thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight..."
“Earth is crammed with heaven, And every bush is aflame with God But only those who see, take off their shoes The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Lent 3

Seeking God for God's Sake

He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...

Psalm 27 does an odd thing, it has a number of high security phrases like, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life,” and “set me high upon a rock.” It appeals to the fortress mentality of our faith, as if to say that is the reason for religion. It being Lent, I was struck by the wilderness and the 'seeking God for God’s sake' quality of the Psalm. David is saying, I only want to seek the Lord’s face, nothing else matters. What David really found in the wilderness wasn’t security from madman Saul, but the mystery of God in the night. Jesus also retreated into the wilderness and into his all night prayer sessions, not because he found people threatening, but because the mystery of seeking to know God is fundamental to the human experience.

 

The common book of prayer does an apt thing in the responsive reading of Psalm 27:5, instead of  speaking about God’s tabernacle, it says, “He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...” How important are the secrets of God to us? It is easy to get the wrong idea about our reason for practicing religion. It’s not like we go to church to buy an insurance policy. I know this doesn’t preach as easily as the fortress aspects of Psalm 27. Jesus wasn’t going for the easy message when he told Nicodemus that the spirit of God that allows us to be reborn is like the wind, blowing where you do not expect it (John 3:5-9).

Sunday, February 24, 2013
Lent 2
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