When the Wilderness Comes Early

by | Jan 25, 2022

A forked path in the wilderness

“Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness”

For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 810.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus… Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Luke 4:14-21

In the name of God, Amen.

On the day that I am here because of a painful parting and resulting confusion and grief at the center of your congregation, the appointed Scripture texts remind us why people of faith gather in community at all. Each in their distinct contexts describe the powerful faith experiences that can occur in a communal setting and, in the case of St. Paul’s image of a body made up of dependent parts, why we need each other. We’re connected to each other, he writes, whether we realize it or not. When one suffers, we all suffer.

While this is only the third Sunday in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a time when the Scripture readings in church invite us to consider the ways Jesus makes himself known to us as light for the world, it seems that the next liturgical season, that of Lent, has come early for St. Paul’s, Rock Creek.

Lent, you may recall, is patterned on Jesus’ forty days of trial and testing in the wilderness and the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering their promised land. To be sure, due to the pandemic, the entire world has been in a prolonged season of trial and testing. Now, as a congregation, you have been thrust into your own particular wilderness time, for some of you with seemingly little or no warning. For others, however, it’s been a wilderness at St. Paul’s for quite a while.

One of the defining characteristics of a wilderness experience is not knowing how or when it will end. Forty in Scripture is a symbolic number, signifying a long, uncertain time. While there will be guideposts and processes to guide you, the journey ahead is full of unknowns, including how long it will last. On the other hand, thankfully, wilderness experiences, however long, are not meant to last forever, even though it may seem that way while we’re in one. We’re actually heading somewhere else.

When we find ourselves in a wilderness that we did not choose to enter, the first thing we have to decide is if we can accept that we’re there. Acceptance is not easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once, or at the same time for everyone. That’s okay. You may never agree as to how and why St. Paul’s landed in this wilderness, and that’s understandable. But you are here now, and if it’s any comfort, so am I. I’m here with you.

Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness. One way is to get through it as fast as we can, which is what we all would prefer. Choosing to move quickly has the advantage of being here for as short a time as possible, presuming everything goes well. With a bit of luck, we make it through the wilderness and arrive safely on the other side, not much changed by the experience. What’s difficult about this approach is the emotional impact that can occur when things don’t go according to plan. Then this get-through-it-as-fast-as possible mindset can lead to added frustration, anger, and despair.

Another way to travel through a wilderness is to turn around and leave the way we came in. This is only an option in the wilderness experiences that we enter by choice, when it’s still possible to change our minds. I think about this a lot in terms of lifestyle choices. We can enter the wilderness of making uncomfortable changes in advance of a crisis–adjusting our health practices, or investing in our relationships, or facing an inevitable change sooner rather than later so as to have more options. But in those instances, having entered the wilderness by choice, we can also choose to turn around. Perhaps we underestimated the cost, and the changes were way harder than we realized. Maybe we got scared. Making the choice to enter the wilderness before it is thrust upon us is a good idea, but it’s really hard to do. If we don’t, however, invariably the wilderness will come to us–in the form of a medical crisis, or a permanently ruptured relationship, or a forced change.

Of course this is easier to see in other people’s lives than it is in our own. For over five years my sister and I begged our mother to make changes in her life as she aged. She would dabble in the possibility of selling her nearly 200-year old house on 7 acres of land, find a less remote place to live, and tend more carefully to her health. But she couldn’t bring herself to follow through on any of those changes. Then she got really sick and almost died, and my sister and I had to move in and make all those changes for her, which she hated and I don’t blame her.

Sometimes we can choose to enter a wilderness; sometimes it comes to us. I daresay one of the dynamics at St. Paul’s, and in The Episcopal Church writ large, is coming to terms now with issues we ought to have dealt years ago, but didn’t. Now we have to face them because we have no choice.

A third way to travel through the wilderness is to make our peace with where we are. We don’t often begin the wilderness journey with this attitude; it comes to us when we realize that we’ve gone too far to turn back, the horizon is still beyond our sight, and we are going to be where we are for a while. It’s a sober realization, but it allows us to relax into the experience, and learn from it what we need to learn. This is when the wilderness can change us, so that when we leave, we are different people. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll never leave, but we learn to make our peace with that prospect, too. A yoga teacher once described this to me as “finding peace in a difficult position.”

In both the passage from Nehemiah and the Gospel of Luke, it strikes me that the people gathered are hearing sacred words read to them that they’ve heard many times before. But they are hearing them now with new ears, as if for the first time, because of their circumstances. In the case of the people of Israel, the words of Torah had been lost to them through the trauma of exile and return, the loss of their mother tongue, and the lack of consistent spiritual leadership. Now as Ezra stood before them, reading the old familiar words, the people wept. They wept for joy and for grief, for all that they had lost and all that lay before them. In the midst of their tears, Ezra said to them. “The joy of the Lord,” he said, “will be your strength.”

Similarly, the people gathered in the synagogue the morning Jesus got up to read had heard the words of Isaiah before, but they heard them differently because he was reading them. More than that, he embodied them in a way they had never experienced before. The words were fulfilled in their hearing, and even before Jesus said it, they knew it was true. Now, as you will hear next week if you come to church, the people didn’t like what Jesus had to say after that and they kicked him out. It turns out that we’re all slow learners when it comes to following Jesus. There’s room for humility all around.

In the weeks ahead, should you remain faithful in worship at St. Paul’s, you will hear words you’ve heard before, because there will be a new person speaking them. You will hear yourself recite familiar words in a new way because of where you are now as a church. And it won’t be just the words in church, but everywhere. You do well to pay attention to the familiar things now, because in the wilderness they are all new.

After all, what does one do in a wilderness time? What is the work?

The first task is to pay attention, not necessarily to do anything differently right away, but to listen and observe the world, and ourselves in it, from this new vantage point.

About 12 years ago, my husband gave me a book of poetry by Mary Oliver for Christmas, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I already owned a copy. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t looked at the book since I bought it several years before, and that maybe it had something new to say to me. I had been through a lot in the year before that Christmas, including a really big disappointment in my vocation. (This is when I came in second in the bishop’s election in Minnesota, where I had served as a rector for 15 years.)

I opened the book of poetry to read it from this new vantage point in my life. The first line of the first poem took my breath away: “My work is loving the world.” She goes on: “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”1 There’s something about the wilderness that stops normal life in its tracks, and that’s a good thing. It enables us to see the world around us, and to hear familiar words, as if for the first time.

Another wilderness task is to take stock of our lives, and in this instance, your life as a community of faith. Taking stock is an excellent way to keep our focus where we can actually do something productive, rather than wallowing in self-pity or blaming others for our lot. The Benedictine author Joan Chittister puts it this way: “Courage, character, self-reliance, and faith are forged in the fire of affliction. We wish it were otherwise. But if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”2 As we learn these things, we can face almost anything. And that, by the way, is the hallmark of coming out of a wilderness: you are stronger, more resilient for having lived through it, so that you can face the future without fear.

One last wilderness task that I’ll mention for today: tend to the most important things. There’s little time for trivia in the wilderness–this is a time to remember why you are here. I realize that the range of emotion and interpretation of what has happened is broad among you, and it would be tempting to walk away from your community. I pray that you won’t, and that you retreat to corner tables of observation and critique. I pray that you tend to the priceless, and at times costly gift of Christian community and what, at its best, it offers you and through you can offer others: a path to walk and a light to go by; a different reference point from what the world teaches about success and failure and self-worth; and most especially, the invitation to draw closer to Jesus as your Savior and friend.

In closing, let me assure you that there is no one right way to experience the wilderness. As you face what lies ahead, it’s good to remember that there is always more than one right answer, always more than one possibility before you, and always a chance to start again. That’s especially comforting when things don’t go as we hoped or planned. There’s always a Plan B.

The author Anne Lamott once offered these words as her Plan B at a time when she was at a loss for what to do next. They strike me as a good Plan A in a wilderness time:

Remember God is in charge.
Do your inner work.
Be of service.
Breathe again.
Give thanks.3

Gracious God, I hold before you the people of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek and ask that you would make yourself known to each one in a powerful way. Guide them through this wilderness time; assure them of your presence with them through Jesus, and give them a glimpse of the preferred future you have in mind for them. Help them to breathe, remember that you are in charge, do their inner work, breathe again, and give thanks. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


1“Messengers,” by Mary Oliver, in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 1.
2Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 33.
3Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (San Francisco: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 314.