Wilderness Way

Ethel Hornbeck
February 26, 2012
First Sunday of Lent
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Mark 1:9-15
Given the news these days—political, economic, religious -- to talk about wilderness seems kind of redundant. But wilderness is before us this morning, so let us enter the wilderness, together, starting with this, from the gospel of Mark, chapter 1. Let us listen to what the Spirit may be saying to us today.

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 immediately the Spirit 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 turn around and trust in the good news."

Well, speaking of redundant, didn’t we just do this story, a few short weeks ago? Yes. But. On the “baptism of our Lord Sunday” we only get the first half--where Jesus joins this desert movement of his wild cousin John in this dramatic baptism scene. The heavens crack open, the spirit appears like a dove, and the voice of God claims Jesus as God’s beloved. High religious drama. But today we get the second half of the story: wilderness. notice also what we do not get—no sin, no punishment, no evil, no guilt, penitence, or overt suffering. Just Jesus on a wilderness journey, becoming God’s Beloved.

This is the hero’s journey; it’s an archetypal story that we find in some form in the life of every saint and wisdom figure in every culture and tradition. Think Odysseus, Buddha, Abraham, Noah and Moses. The hero always begins in a world that makes sense. The rules are clear, and life has unambiguous purpose. A call comes to leave home for some adventure--Francis of Assisi left his perfect life of wine, women and song to follow his dream to be a knight. On the way, the hero gets challenged, wounded, sick– Francis is severely injured in battle; Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux and a thousand others suffer devastating illness; Martin Luther King Jr. received death threats against himself and his children tempting him to abandon everything. And then, he hears a voice saying simply:I am with you; and he surrenders fear forever. Through illness, wounding, upending, always the discovery of a new way, a deeper sense of self, a whole new experience of the Holy, which drives the hero back to their ordinary life, empowered to make everything they touch more whole. The hero’s journey is our journey too, if we choose it.

Richard Rohr in his wonderful and wise little book Falling Upward, uses this universal narrative to examine what he calls “spirituality for the two halves of life.” In the first half of life, we build a container--explore our identity, discover our gifts, our path, claim our faith and sense of God. The task of the second half is to explore more deeply what goes in the container, what it means, what is ultimate, and to let go of structures, assumptions, identities, teachings, dogmas, practices, images of the Holy that no longer function. Of course the problem is that we don’t want to let go of anything. It’s so good to be on the mountain, said Peter in the transfiguration story last week—lets build McMansions and stay up here forever. This clinging, an inherent resistance to change, explains (at least in part) the universal pattern of falling apart —the getting wounded, sick and confused part of the hero’s journey. The container cracks open, our expectations disappoint, our images of self and God shatter… our hearts get broken in order that something bigger might fall in. “Some kind of falling”, Rohr assures us, “is programmed into the journey.” For some it is dramatic and wrenching, for others it may be a gentle letting go. And the two halves may not be chronological at all; I know some very broken, very wise and generous young people, and some very rigid, angry, self obsessed old ones. And, the pattern is never once and for all, but always cyclical.  We build up, we let go. We keep falling upward, if we are willing.

Notice that the place of certainty, where all the rules are clear and everything makes sense, you know, the place we all want to dwell, only exists at the very beginning—the “adolescence” of the journey. It is a necessary and temporary stage. Those who insist on remaining there, according to Rohr, become ”cognitively rigid and risk averse… preoccupied with externals… (with) little use for the world beyond their own control or explanation.” This describes people and institutions, including most churches and clergy, according to Rohr. In fact, our entire culture is mired in the first half of life, obsessed with externals—survival, success, and stuff--to the detriment of the things that matter most—truth, beauty, goodness, and human wholeness. There is very little support “out there” for the work of the second half.

So if things don’t make much sense to you these days—you know, things like self, God, life—it may not be such bad news. This journey toward wholeness, “becoming Beloved”, takes a lifetime, probably even an eternity. It always involves some kind of suffering, in the  movement from knowing to unknowing, from protection to open hearted vulnerability. It invites us, again and again, to let go of our expectations, our carefully constructed images of ourselves and of God, and to be willing for wilderness, where a self centered orientation can be broken down and an other-centered life made possible.

The wisdom stories of Christian tradition affirm again and again that the wilderness is not a place of punishment. It may be frightening, but it offers new life. Noah, in the wilderness of the great flood, discovers a whole new universal dimension of God’s love.  The wilderness may be arduous, but promises liberation. Moses and his people, freed from slavery, still must journey for 40 years through the desert in order to find true freedom in a new kind of community based on radical hospitality. And wilderness may upset all our plans and assumptions, but if we can let go, transformation becomes possible.  In the wilderness Jesus discovers the fullness of the Holy around and within him, which he calls the “reign of God”. On discovering that his beloved cousin John is on his way to almost certain death, Jesus’ response is this: turn around and trust. Turn around and trust because the power of Love around and within you is so much bigger than sorrow, more powerful than violence, stronger than death.

Turn around and trust. It doesn’t seem like much, but it may be all we get, and like manna in the desert, it may be way more than it seems. In the wilderness, you learn to listen deeply and receive gratefully all that is given.

There is a lot of falling apart going on, out there and right here. We are losing loved ones to death and disease, marriages are crumbling, addiction is claiming the lives of our children, and we are all getting older. Those of us just starting out can’t even get started, so much has been destroyed. We struggle with the limits of our capacity to love, and feel deserted by a God we can no longer believe in. (You know, that white guy in the sky who knows if we’ve been naughty or nice and rewards us accordingly.)

But there’s also a lot of falling upward.  This community offers the great gift of people willing to walk in the wilderness—our own and with one another. Wilderness of life circumstance, of self, of the ultimate of mystery that we sometimes call God. In any wilderness community it is impossible to walk alone. There are wild beasts, and there are angels everywhere, always. And in this falling upward, I am also seeing—joy growing right in the soil of fresh grief; radiant new life springing up in the face of impending death; curiosity and generosity in response to total loss. Wilderness miracles are everywhere.

“Wilderness is not just a place it is also a state of being.”These are the words of Gerald May one of the great wisdom teachers of our time. “If happiness means being happy and sadness means being sad, then wilderness means being wilder… the belief that we must dominate and tame all that is within us and around us is the most fundamental estrangement of Western civilization.,. We all need to allow ourselves to be led into our own wildernesses, there to be taught what we most need to know, and to be healed where we most need it.” Jerry wrote these words in his last book The Wisdom of the Wilderness as he lay dying of cancer; he added this “Now it is the wilderness of my own fragmenting body that offers to heal me.“ Jerry lived those words to the very end, and I trust he lives them still

Lent is a wilderness season--a gift, not a punishment—an annual, recurring invitation for us all to explore, name and embrace the many dimensions of wilderness –and wildness—happening in our lives, and here, we do so together. To ask what it might mean for us, here and now, to ”turn around and trust.” So, let us walk to Jerusalem, keeping our eyes peeled and hearts open; let us practice silence, share our experiences, and notes from our journeys with one another. Let us listen deeply, break bread, learn to love, becoming the beloved. Amen