Wilderness Training (St. Thomas’, DC)

by | Feb 18, 2018

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:9-15

Preachers are often counseled to address from the pulpit whatever issues they know are on people’s mind when the come to church. While everything I have to say today has been informed by the events of the past week and all that has led up to them, I won’t touch upon them directly. So before going on, might we pause together and allow God’s grace to meet us in silence as we offer our sighs too deep for words on behalf of those killed or forever marked by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida and for the 800,000 young people fearing deportation from the only country they’ve known as home.

The day after President Trump’s election, we held a service at Washington National Cathedral. We had planned it for weeks, recognizing that no matter the election’s outcome, we would need to pray for our nation. The biblical image that came to mind for me that day was exile. Many of us woke up feeling exiled in our own land. And we knew, that had the election gone the other way, at least as many others would have felt the same way. In fact, one of the more theologically conservative priests of the diocese wrote me afterwards to say that he was among those who have felt in exile not only in the country but in the Episcopal Church for a very long time. Regardless, then, of where we stand on any theological or political spectrum, exile is an experience common to all.

Today I’d like to reframe our experience of the times we live in through the lens of another biblical image given to us every year at beginning of Lent–that of wilderness. The season of Lent, as you know, is patterned on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when he was driven by the Spirit after his baptism to the wilderness. He was there for 40 days and 40 nights, mirroring the ancient Israelites’ 40 years in wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.

Wilderness and exile have a lot in common. They are seasons and states of dislocation and disorientation. We rarely choose to go to either place, but are instead driven there, as Jesus was, by circumstances or forces larger than we are. While the terrain may be similar, the reasons we’re there and the work given us could not be more different. In exile, we must learn to make our home in a new place, much like the refugee family  you are preparing to welcome. In contrast, when we enter a wilderness, we’re never meant to stay there. It’s a pass-through place, on the way to somewhere else.

The wilderness is a place of testing, of trial and transformation. We aren’t in control of what happens to us in the wilderness, but how we respond to our circumstances and what God is doing in the midst of them will, in large measure, determine the direction of our lives and the impact of our witness when we’re on the other side–and we will get to the other side someday, when we are ready. You know, it wasn’t physical distance that kept the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before they entered the Promised Land, but rather their spiritual capacity to live as free people. It took them that long to able to live as free people.

So if we’re in wilderness now, let’s get our bearings so that we can be open to all that God wants us to teach, so that we, too, can move on.

Remember that being in a wilderness isn’t necessarily an indication that we’ve done something wrong. While it is, by definition, a hard place, landing there can be one of the best things that ever happen to us. The wilderness is where Jesus went, as Frederick Buechner once said, “to learn what it meant to be Jesus.” It’s where we learn something of who we are and what matters most. It’s where we learn to distinguish the essential from the trivial, and discover how little we actually need.

The wilderness is a lean place–you get what you need there, but not much more than that. There is a nomadic quality to it, which I’m sure as a church you can relate to. While the Israelites were in the wilderness, they complained of hunger and became nostalgic for their days in slavery, when at least they were given something to eat. So God sent them manna, a bland sticky grain that they could gather each morning, enough for the day. The day before Sabbath, they could gather for enough for two days, but otherwise if they tried to hoard or keep manna it would rot. The lesson is clear enough: in the wilderness, you get your daily bread from God, no less and no more. It isn’t the greatest bread, either, but it will keep you alive.

I once heard someone describe the kind of guidance God gives in the wilderness as that which comes to you one piece at a time. You receive an insight to act upon; after you do, the next bit comes to you, and then the next, each step requiring some response. The novelist E.L. Doctorow likened the work of writing a novel to driving the fog with your headlights on. You can’t see far in front of you, he said, but you can make the entire journey that way. Traveling in the wilderness can feel like that—moving forward according to the dim light you’re given, without being sure of the destination.   

There’s also a sense of cleansing that’s part of the wilderness experience, shedding patterns or ways of being that no longer suit us. Years ago, Anne Lamott told a story of a time went she went dress shopping with her dying friend, Pam. Modeling one dress that she especially liked, she asked her Pam if it made her look fat. Her dying friend was quiet for a moment and then said, “Annie, I don’t you think have that kind of time.” Is there anything you don’t you have time for anymore, some way of being yourself that no longer suits you? In the wilderness, you’re invited to lay it down.

We exercise new spiritual muscles in the wilderness. Sometimes we feel very far from God and must learn the disciplines to keep our own candles burning, but it’s also possible to feel an extraordinary connection to God, even in desolation.

I first met Bishop Gene Robinson years before his election. He had come to the Diocese of Minnesota to lead a clergy conference sometime in the late 1990s. He spoke to us of his wilderness time when he decided at last to be honest with himself and all around him about his identity as a gay man. That honesty resulted in the loss of his marriage, the daily joys of parenting his children, and the near loss of his vocation in the church.  “I crawled into bed each night,” he said, “with only my integrity and relationship to God intact. And I learned that those two things were enough.”

There’s something exhilarating about knowing God that way, and knowing that we are mentally and spiritually prepared to face just about anything. “I know that I will never be afraid of anything again,” I heard someone say, after facing his greatest fear. “I know that I will never be someone’s good little girl again,” said another, after facing a mean-spirited authority figure and holding her ground. These are wilderness statements.

The last thing I’ll say about the wilderness, echoing Bishop Robinson’s words, is that it is a place of tremendous honesty and integrity. It’s where you learn what it means to be you. So if someone asks to you to state your truth, the essence of who you are and what you live for, you can do it. The wilderness is where God sends us to learn who we are and who God is to us. It is a costly yet priceless gift.

Now let me wrap things up by giving you a bit of wilderness homework this week, if you’re interested in going deeper.

First, read and contrast the biblical accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as told in Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. It will take about 5 minutes to read, and a lot longer to ponder: what were the temptations that Satan put before Jesus and what do his responses tell us about him? Equally important, what temptations would Satan put before you to keep you from your true path? What would he put before you to keep you small, prevent you from claiming your true identity as a child of God?

Second, read two articles from today’s Washington Post.

The first is a feature article in the Style section tracing the stunning career of African American director Ava DuVernay, whose film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time opens next month. Her story is a great example of wilderness training preparing a person for an important life work. Here’s one excerpt:

“DuVernay’s rise is not accident. It’s about talent, long hours and the way you treat people. About not doing things the same way because that’s how they’ve always been done. Oh, and always remember: you may be the first to get a big break but your not the first to deserve one.”

The article also tells of a particularly low moment when it would have been easy to be bitter that her white male counterparts were moving up in Hollywood at lightning speed while she felt passed by. But instead she reached out to a friend for support, got back to work, rededicating herself to her craft, her purpose in life, her abilities, and in so doing, forged her own path in the film industry.

The second article, A Politician is Born in the Magazine section, is an exile-to- wilderness story if there ever was one. It highlights all the women motivated to run for political office in the wake of the last presidential election and what it takes to get ready for such a race: motivation, training, confidence-building, fundraising prowess, networking skills. You don’t learn those overnight. It takes time, patience, willingness to fail. You go to the wilderness to learn those things. While our current body of politicians are doing whatever it is they’re doing, there is a rising body of women in wilderness training, getting ready for their opportunity to replace them.

The wilderness is where God sends us to prepare for a future we cannot yet see.

I can’t help but wonder what it is that you, as a church, are being prepared for, what spiritual attributes you will need for your life as a church when the new building is complete. With that in mind, I leave you with one final wilderness image, this one directly related to the creation of a building:

The renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, near the end of his life, taught a master class for gifted young architects. The students were rising stars in the architectural field, eager to try innovative ideas and make their mark in bold and dramatic ways. Wright, however, encouraged them to turn their energies inward. “As no stream can rise higher than its source,” he said, “so you can build no greater buildings than you are. So why not go to work on yourselves, so that you become the person you would have your buildings be?”

St. Thomas’ Church, we aren’t in exile any longer. We are in wilderness training. May God continue to bless and equip you to become the church your new building is being created to house. May God sustain each one of you in the wilderness terrain of your individual lives. You are meant to be here. There are lessons to learn here. God will show you the way, one wilderness step at a time.