There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

IMG_5894

Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

IMG_6237IMG_5889

I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

52238986157__0BB32B7D-A218-49B0-A0AB-CE5783F87119

Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“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.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

IMG_6315

Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

IMG_6236

No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

IMG_6244

Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Lifting up

Imagine the path slick with rainfall and mud. I took this photo at the end of a beautiful, clear day, on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte). But just as often as there were dry, sunny days on the way, I encountered trails that were treacherous in rain.

IMG_5303

It was at the end of my longest hiking day in northern Spain that I met with such a descent – almost a full kilometre straight down on uneven cobblestone into the coastal town of Deba. The rain had started moments before. And I had just walked thirty-three kilometres in the hilly Basque country, all the way from Orio, near Zarautz.

I was exhausted. My mind was obsessed with getting to the pilgrims’ hostel as soon as possible. I was ready to collapse in a heap on my bed. Negotiating a tricky, slippery path was the last thing on my mind.

I had read and heard from fellow pilgrims these horror stories of unsuspecting pilgrims breaking their ankles on these kinds of descents. It was all too easy to cut short a pilgrimage after such an unfortunate accident. The practiced and seasoned hikers would know that one had to be very mindful of each step made. Even when they were tired. Even when being mindful of placing one foot in front of the other was the last thing they wanted to do.

On the last couple of Sundays we’ve encountered stories from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ healing ministry.[1] Indeed, during Ordinary (“green”) time in the church – both during the relatively shorter season after Epiphany in January and early February, and during the longer summer months in the season after Pentecost – the Gospel focus is the ministry of Jesus which includes healing.

In Lutheran circles we tend to look only at his proclamation; that is, we focus on what he said and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God. From this, we emphasize that Christian ministry is primarily about the proclamation of the good news. Mission, then, becomes more about ‘telling’ others about God, thus spreading the Word.

We miss an essential aspect of work-in-the-name-of-Christ with this limited vision of mission. Because, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we find that healing has equal prominence in Jesus’ ministry. Not only do we read about the miracles of Jesus curing disease, but more an inner healing for people battling their demons, so to speak. Healing has just as much to do about a renewed mind, a refreshed heart, a changed spirit. A reconstituted identity.

Healing is emphasized in the Gospel story today. Not just through words. But changed lives. Jesus came not only so that we might ‘believe’ with our minds in the good news, but that we might be healed in our earthen bodies and spirits.

How does this happen? What does Jesus do? From the text given to us today, Jesus’ took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, and “lifted her up.”[2] Jesus touches the person, physically. Taking someone by their hand is a sign of accompaniment. God is not remote from our human struggles. God is with us, Emanuel, in the person of Jesus. God takes our hand, and then lifts us up.

Faith can be described as movement. Last week we looked at the movement of ‘leaning into’ what we are afraid of, as a step in the direction of our healing – and finding Jesus is there. This week, the focus on the movement of ‘lifting up’, being ‘lifted up’, by God. As Jesus took the woman by the hand and lifted her up to be healed.

The Psalmist knew intimately this uplifting aspect of faith. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[3] Many of the Psalm writer’s verses are called “psalms of ascent” because they were sung on the way ‘up’ to Jerusalem. The ancient pilgrim faithful needed to ‘look up’ as they made their way up the mount to the gates of the holy city. You know the hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

Faith is a ‘look beyond and upwards’ movement. In other words, the life of faith is not characterized by remaining stuck in the valley of our own suffering and misery. A faithful life, of course, does not deny our suffering nor is it pretending or distracting ourselves away from accepting its harsh reality.

Despite life’s imperfections, and struggles, however, to be faithful is to remain focused on others, on the promise of God, and on the hope we have. God takes our hand and is with us, and God sees it all. As Paul wrote, “we only see dimly now”.[4] Because we cannot understand all of life’s complexities, we need to trust in life, trust in good, trust in God’s time, in God’s way, that “all things work together for good for those who love and trust in God.”[5]

We are not just lifted up for our sake alone. We are called to lift others up, especially the downtrodden. Ours is the calling to lift others up – physically, emotionally, spiritually and materially.

We all know people who are ‘the lifters’. In their presence you feel lighter, lifted up. Whether it be their life story, their non-judgemental presence, their desire to show mercy and compassion, their interest in listening to you – they are an inspiration to us. They inspire us by their discipline, their focus in life.

The Gospel message is: We don’t need to be continually burdened by our suffering and narrow focus. We can be lifted up and transformed to be a reflection of God’s light to the world. In being truly ourselves, we can be ‘lifters’ too.

Remember: Resurrection is the end game of our faith. I mean not only of Jesus’ resurrection over two thousand years ago. I mean not only of our resurrection after we die our physical, earthly death. Because of Jesus’ healing ministry, we know that God also wants us to experience ‘resurrections’ in our own lives – on our earthly pilgrimage of living.

We can change, yes. It won’t be easy. It will take work. It will challenge us. We will need to move outside of our comfort zones. We will need to endure our momentary afflictions. On this journey of transformation, it will get harder before it gets easier. The truth will set us free, but it will first make us miserable. This is Christian truth. There is a cost. It is first the Cross of Christ; it is then the empty tomb of Easter.

There’s a woman from Tennessee whose name is Margaret Stevenson. She was in her nineties when I first read about her passion for hiking. You see, Margaret Stevenson used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She was a legend in the Smoky Mountains. She knew every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name.

Bill was much younger than Margaret when he hiked with her one day up Mt. LeConte. Now, Mt. LeConte is the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaking at just over 6500 feet.

pexels-photo-414171.jpeg

Bill’s first trip up Mt. LeConte was Margaret’s seventy-fifth. When she finally stopped hiking she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went, even before he got cancer.

When Bill and Margaret set out, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break. And this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

Bill liked to hike in spurts, so he said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off in his usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed him by at her steady pace. Bill can still hear the click-click of her cane and with no pity at all in her voice, she said, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so, she did, arriving well ahead of Bill without stopping once.

Not long after that, Margaret’s husband finally died of cancer. But because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it. For her face is fixed on Christ. Her step is steady and sure. And she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

Even youth’s will faint and be weary,

And the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.[6]

[1] Mark 1:21-28, Mark 1:29-39

[2] Mark 1:31

[3] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] William J. Carl III in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.318-319.

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

IMG_5248

Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

IMG_5299

That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

IMG_5853

And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

IMG_5812

It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

IMG_6200

There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

IMG_6217

But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

IMG_6752

We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

The gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch

I walk quickly. In the first hour of walking I can manage 6 kilometres. Pretty impressive, eh? Well, I was zipping through the treed park near our house the other day when I heard birds rustling and chirping in the branches above me. 

I stopped when I noticed a small bird scampering down the trunk of the tree head-first. This tiny bird caught my attention. It had a disproportionately long beak, a black cap and a white breast. I memorized the details of what I saw, and scurried home to consult my three, different bird books.

It was a White-breasted Nuthatch. I was so thrilled to have made that identification. I love birds, and I enjoy the challenge. Most of the time.

I’m by no means an experienced, knowledgeable birder. Because most often I forget the names of the birds I identify or mis-identify. Because I don’t carry around with me my bird books and note pads wherever I go, I have to hone my skills of observation and memory. There are times even when my bird books don’t display sketches or photos of what I think I saw. That’s really frustrating!

When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after being flogged for disrupting the peace, their future was uncertain at best, an absolute failure at worse (Acts 16:16-34). They were done, or so it seemed. The prospects of continuing their missionary journeys looked bleak no matter how you looked at it. What could they do?

I bet no one expected that earthquake to come when it did. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly. The severity and life-changing magnitude of an earthquake, for example, cannot be predicted. It’s only after-the-fact when assessments and conclusions of what happened can be made. 

No one could see it coming the way it did: The fires in northern Alberta around Fort McMurray, despite the dry hot Spring, could not be predicted. Who could forsee precisely how it’s actually played out, and continues to play out? It just happens. And people have to react to the moment, when it does.

Despite the life-changing magnitude of events unfolding around Paul, he still seems to find stride in his faith, and yes, even joy. He shows resilience in faith. Despite all the losses, earthquakes, imprisonments, floggings, shipwrecks, rejections, threats on his life, thorn in his side — he still demonstrates an incredible passion for, dedication to, and joy in his life in Christ.

They are in the Roman colonial city of Philippi when Paul and Silas are arrested. Paul’s famous letter to the Philippians was written, later, when Paul sat in a Roman prison cell. And it is in this letter where we find some of the most joyous and aspirational words from Paul’s hand: 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:4-7)

Paul is instructing his good friends in Philippi, and followers of Christ in all times and places, to rejoice — not when everything is perfect, not when your problems have been resolved, not when certain conditions have been met, not when we are prepared for rejoicing, not even when the stars are aligned.

But, to rejoice, precisely when things are chaotic and messy. Rejoice, precisely when things are not going well, nor planned, nor pre-conceived, nor forseen. How is this even possible?

When installing our new dishwasher recently, I screwed clamps into the cabinetry on both sides. Tightly.

When I ran a cycle for the first time, water started streaming out the side of the door. It’s as if the door wasn’t even sealed! I discovered later that because I had fastened the clamps too tightly, the whole unit twisted and warped the door in an unnatural way and therefore could not seal properly and do its job. 

As soon as I loosened the screws a bit so that the dishwasher could rest naturally, evenly and squarely on the floor, everything worked fine.

Indeed, to be faithful is to know how to celebrate, even in difficult, unpredictable times. Trying too hard without a break can actually damage our commitment in faith. 

When things don’t go well, is it that we are trying too hard? Or believe the solution is simply to work harder? And then do we get all tense, anxious, impatient and frustrated when nothing in our power seems to work or when things don’t always go the way we planned? And we don’t ask for help. Or recognize or confess openly our limitations. Who do we think we are?

Especially during the long journey of a dark night of the soul, it is vital for our health to pause from time to time, loosen the screws, and lighten up a bit. Doing so will improve our endurance, open our hearts, deepen our trust in the good Lord who comes to us, who is alive and lives in us.

It is the freedom of God who comes to us, quite unexpectedly. Like the gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch. All I needed to do, was to stop my rushed march through the woods. Stop my over-thinking, incessant mental machinations. 

Just stop, and look up.

The desert journey begins

One of the first things we do even before setting out on the journey is to contemplate: “What should I bring along?” And so we need to imagine what it is we will be getting ourselves into, on this journey. Where will I go? What will I do? What will the weather be like? As such, we must initially deal with our expectations.

And as the weather goes, so the reality of what actually happens once we get on the road might not coincide at all with what we had anticipated. We all know those people who travel without high expectations or a highly controlled agenda; they just experience things and deal with situations when they arise. And if that’s how we are to travel on this spiritual journey, some of us may not want to go; we may get stuck even before we head out the door.

And yet, we know, no amount of planning can determine precisely how we experience the journey.

Jesus wandered the hillside, countryside and byways around Palestine. It seems every time we encounter Jesus in the Gospels he is on the move. He is either coming or going. And so it is consistent with the nature of the pilgrim God we worship: Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before he even begins his ministry, the Spirit of God sends him into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights where he fasts and contemplates the journey ahead (Matthew 4:1).

“Do not worry,” Jesus later preached, “about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink … what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25,31). In the desert, admittedly, those luxuries become somewhat irrelevant, don’t they?

Jesus goes into the desert. We may not literally need to go into the desert – although you can understand why ancient Christian pilgrims made it a point to spend time in the desert as our Lord did because you cannot find a more austere location for a true ‘letting go’. An actual desert pilgrimage brought spiritual benefit for many followers of Christ. But the harsh climate in that setting – with the sand dunes, scorpions, snakes and burning hot air – can also stand as a metaphor for us.

Michael Pacher’s masterful, artistic depiction of the temptation of Jesus on an altar piece in the Sankt Wolfgang church in Austria shows Jesus and the devil not in the middle of a desert as we would imagine. But on a narrow street in a medieval town in front of a cathedral, of all places. And what is more, the devil is not holding a pitch fork and coloured red. He is wearing a monk’s habit and bent over like an elderly, wizened man.

Pacher’s interpretation is worthy of reflection, as he translates the desert into his own daily reality. Living in the 15th century, Pacher implies in his art that the journey of faith is not tied down, literally, to any particular geography but is lived out especially in one’s own place, wherever one is. What is more, our greatest temptations are more subtle. What can destroy us will more often than not come disguised in familiar, even culturally acceptable ways and people.

We often discover, do we not, that the greatest challenges and difficulties on the road arise from the least expected sources — you packed the wrong pair of shoes, or you can’t decide whether to grab a quick burger here or there or skip lunch altogether. The biggest temptations, or tests, come from the most familiar, most common and from those nearest to us — even from within ourselves!

And yet, we do not overcome the devil by avoiding this pilgrim journey. In truth, the only way we experience redemption, healing and restoration is by committing to the journey through the desert of our lives.

Go, we must, should we seek the Lord. Jesus went into the desert. And so, we will follow there. “Follow me” Jesus called to his disciples (e.g. Matthew 9:9). But how shall we be? What shall we do?

If we follow Jesus into the desert, we must also consider about what Jesus was tempted. And we know that Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of all, right up to the end when he hung on the cross “despised and rejected” was taunted again by the voice of the devil in the passersby: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:39-40).

We know that, as from the beginning, Satan tempts his victims to go for power: To Eve he promised: “You can be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Perhaps this is why the first of the Ten Commandments establishes who is the God we are to worship and place undying trust in: “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7). The three temptations of Christ are really three variations on this same basic theme: the turning of the bread – about the miraculous; the falling from the temple – about the spectacle; and while the first two show semblance of persuasion, the third goes directly for sheer control (p.46, Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2, JN Press Kentucky, 2010): “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4:8-9).

The pilgrim ‘desert’ journey is the sure fire antidote to the danger of pretending we have ultimate power and control over life. It is the path of humility, letting go, and ultimate trust in God – that God will take care of us as He did Jesus.

But we have to move. On a journey, we move, physically. We put one foot forward at a time. What tangible, intentional discipline will you do during these forty days before us now? Whatever it is you decide to take up in Lent, envision each time you do it like taking one step forward on that journey.

In worship, we symbolize an intentional discipline by refraining from singing “Alleluia”, the Hymn of Praise after the Kyrie, and, generally, simplifying and toning down the style of worship. We also give opportunity for more prayer and worship on Wednesday evenings, during which we practice the ancient Christian rite of laying on of hands and anointing with oil. With tangible, earthy, disciplines that we do together, we keep our feet on the ground and moving forward. Our soup suppers before worship on Wednesdays are intentionally simple, to remind us that we have all that we need in trusting Jesus for our very lives.

And despite the temptations and set-backs we may occasionally experience on the road, Jesus goes with us. What Jesus shows us, above all, in his wilderness experience was an unyielding trust in God, the Father. After all, it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness in the first place. Jesus needed to trust God that God knew what He was doing in sending Jesus on this unappealing journey. Jesus had to trust God’s words in Scripture over-against the devil’s wiles. Jesus had to trust God that in the end, his needs would be met. And indeed, they were, as angels came to attend to his hunger and physical need (Matthew 4:11).

Whatever temptations come our way, they are essentially an invitation not to trust God. Temptations are those ways of thinking and behavior that place more and more power and control in our hands – as if we were God. Instead, we are invited each Lenten season, specifically, to welcome opportunities to be vulnerable, to open our hearts, to not be afraid to go on that journey into the desert and experience for some time what is feels like to let go, and trust God even more.