Exploring the Wilderness

A Clearing Season: An Introspective Approach to Lent

Luke 4:1-13 First Sunday of Lent

Lent begins in the Wilderness.

A couple of years ago, when we first moved to our current house, I couldn’t wait to explore the woods that surrounded our new home. So, on a beautiful spring day, I set out through the national forest to see what I could see. I immersed myself in the beauty of the wilderness that is my backyard. And I was happy! That is, until I realized that I was not really sure how to get back home. I wasn’t lost, no self-respecting man would ever admit being lost; I was simply “turned-around”. And since I didn’t think to bring a compass, finding my way out was a challenge. I followed a couple of old trails, but as I passed the same rock the third time, I decided to institute a new plan of attack. I looked up. By following the sun, I was able to determine east from west and eventually I did come out on Birchwood Road, a mile or so from where I began, but, in the end, the lost was found.

Now, the narrative that we have from Luke’s Gospel today, also has something to say about what we might find when we “explore the wilderness”; not a literal wilderness, like my experience in the Chequamegon, but a wilderness of the soul; a wilderness of self.

Now, if our wilderness experience in any way resembles that of Jesus, then this passage tells us that the wilderness, those places of discomfort and chaos that arise in our lives, are important and valuable and are not to be overlooked. We all tend, I think, to attempt to separate ourselves from discomfort or chaos. And I’m right there with ya. I love logic, routine, and calmness. There are certainly times when an emotional or even a physical distance from chaos is necessary.  But that being said, this wilderness text challenges us to try a different approach. It encourages us to sit in the uncomfortable, chaotic places for as long as possible. Why? Well, because it’s only when we confront the discomfort, when we acknowledge our confusion, and when we recognize the chaos swirling around us, that we can begin to deal with it.  It’s only in the recognition of our dis-ease, that we can begin heal; that we can begin to move back to a place of harmony and balance. “Denial,” as they say, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

And that’s where we find ourselves today. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we’re asked, or perhaps “led by the Spirit” to enter whatever “wilderness” is plaguing us. Now, finding these wilderness places is not all that difficult when we have the courage to look. The best way to find them actually, is to set aside some time, find a space free from distractions, and then sit quietly with God. The very act of sitting quietly can bring whatever wilderness you need to experience to the forefront.[I]

Granted, sometimes finding quiet can be a challenge. In my attempt to begin morning meditation this past Thursday, I was met with a groomed and ready for school Manny who wanted to watch You Tube. Not to mention phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook Messenger all “dinging” on my phone. The dog needed to go out, the goats and chickens wanted to be fed… My friends, the stuff of life can be a stumbling block to find our wilderness moments.

But it’s not impossible. Time and again, we see Jesus seek-out a secluded place, a place like the wilderness in today’s text, in order to face his challenges and temptations. And his temptations were much-the-same as the temptations we face in our lives. And upon closer observation, we see that the three temptations presented to Jesus all fall into the same category: putting self-need before the needs of others.

I mean, think about these three promises; the promise of a perpetually full belly, of absolute power, and of freedom from all harm. If I had these things my life would be awesome. But, what about the life of the person from whom the bread was taken? What about the vulnerable, voiceless person whose power has been usurped for my pleasure? How about those who remain in harms way in order to guarantee my safety?  Do you see what I’m driving at here? There’s a cause and effect in everything we do, in every decision we make. Our time in the wilderness is meant to help us to discern the outcomes of our decisions and to weigh the consequences.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I saw a news story this past week that broke my heart. It was about the children of the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world because of an on-going civil war. With over 620,000 internally displaced people and 570,000 refugees, one in five Central Africans has fled conflict, leaving both home and land behind. In 2019, an estimated 2.9 million people, including 1.5 million children, two out of every three children in the country, will require humanitarian assistance. Of the 1.9 million people without access to safe water, 950,000 are children, and basic water and sanitation standards are not being met in many sites for displaced persons. Less than half of all children are immunized. In 2019, an estimated 38,000 children under 5 years will suffer from severe acute malnutrition.[ii] And these statistics say nothing about the abduction of young men who are then forced to fight in the war against their will or anything about the daily rape of young girls. This is a real humanitarian crisis.

But I was given a spark of hope by this story because they also presented some success that UNICEF has had in this region. They’ve recently been able, with the help of the United Nations, to distribute these ready-made food packets to children. They taste like peanut butter but are very high in nutrition. The news story ended by showing several children who earlier in the spot were on the brink of starvation but were now responsive and even smiling.

I share this story with you today, because as I reflect upon the wilderness experience that this news story led me through, I can’t help but think about all the distractions, the temptations that blind us to such great suffering.  It’s easy to turn-a-blind eye to places like the Central Africa Republic or South Sudan or Yemen or Syria or any of the other places where people, children, are suffering. It’s far more difficult, I think, to allow ourselves to “suffer-with” those who suffer.

Perhaps the greatest temptation to be avoided is apathy?

As we continue on this Lenten journey and as we explore the wilderness of our minds and lives, my prayer is that we all find our way out, not by using a compass, but by thinking of the other before self.  If all of us could do that, this world would be a little better and it would become more just place for all people.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005) pgs. 13-26

[ii] UNICEF Official Website (www.unicef.org)

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