Lent I, 2018
As we begin our Lenten journey this first Sunday, it is appropriate that our word for the day is Wilderness. In the starkest gospel version, Mark tells us the Holy Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. He was there forty days, tempted by Satan and “staffed” by angels. Mark does not tells us what temptations Satan used or how the angels “waited” on Jesus.
By definition, wilderness is “an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region;” “a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town;” “a position of disfavor, especially in a political context.”
Wilderness is part of our lives. We can all find ourselves in a wilderness. We cannot live and love and engage in life in meaningful ways without sometimes ending up in the wilderness. Wilderness times are those times when we feel we are tested to our limits. We use wilderness terms to describe those times: dry, desolate, lonely, trying, difficult, agonizing. We speak of hunger, thirst, and longing in the wilderness.
Yet despite its depravations, the wilderness is a place of learning. Call it the middle schooler in me that sees the word “test” and immediately thinks of school and what we were” supposed” to learn. But it is true, we journey through a wilderness in life and, in the best situations, evaluate what we gleaned along the way.
One of those social media memes that made its way around the internet a while back listed significant things children learn about life:
“You can’t trust dogs to watch your food for you.”
“Don’t sneeze when somebody is cutting your hair.”
You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.”
When your mom us mad at your dad, don’t let her brush your hair.”
“No matter how hard you try, you can’t baptize a cat.”
These are the kinds of accelerated learning experiences we call “learning the hard way.” So it is in the wilderness. A lot can be learned in the wilderness, but one lesson stands out. The wilderness is often a time of accelerated learning about priority—what really matters in our lives. One author illustrates the lack of a sense of priority in life to a trip to the grocery store on an empty stomach, and without a shopping list. Susan warns me all the time about this. When you approach it this way, nearly everything looks delicious and you wander through the aisles without a plan, loading the shopping cart with goodies. After the shock of the cost at checkout, there is the shock of your spouse when you arrive home with sacks of snacks and food for only three meals!
Life offers us many options—a myriad of ways to use our resources, time, abilities, and influence. Without any clear sense of what is most important, we can spend it all and at the end of the day find that we have not taken care of what matters most.
Jesus’ journey in the wilderness comes just before he begins his public ministry. It was a time for sorting out what mattered most, to fine tune his identity and to get a clear vision of God’s will for his ministry. Matthew and Luke fill in the blanks in Mark’s account telling us the temptation testing was about wealth, fame, and power. Could Satan divert Jesus’ from his mission with this shiny trinity?
To consider Jesus in the wilderness is to contemplate our own set of values and how we might journey in the wilderness. What is most important for us? How do we make decisions about life’s priorities?
The Boy Scout Wilderness Survival Merit Badge lists seven things as priorities for survival: Positive Mental Attitude, First Aid, Shelter, Fire, Signaling, Water and Food. One of the fun tools to help Scouts learn how to prioritize for this list is to give them a Wilderness scenario, a list of twenty or so items and have them rank them, eliminating the eight they could not carry with them.
I learned this first hand in junior high on a YMCA trip to an oasis in the Mexican desert. After leaving the vans we set out to hike in. We got lost and spent a couple days waiting for leadership to figure out how to figure out the way back to the vans. When we finally set out, we were told to leave behind anything in our packs that was not essential. Prior to the trip my dad bought me a black cowboy hat. For the leather band he added a feather, and to keep it on a leather thong to hang under my chin. To keep it in place he attached a fancy turquoise bead the size of a golf ball. In the company of baseball hat wearing junior high kids, I was teased mercilessly. Guess what I left behind when I set out to hike in the sun of the Mexican desert.
How do we prioritize in life that enables us to survive the wilderness passages? Some years ago I spent time in conversation with a fellow in the wilderness of a divorce. It was an agonizing, at times, vicious journey with custody, money issues and accusations piling up all the time. Along the way he said: “I have learned that what I thought was very important before doesn’t seem very important now. What I took for granted in our relationship and with the kids and thought I would get around to it, eventually, is now at the top of my list.”
Of course, clichés come to mind, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” And as painful as the wilderness experiences can be, they do yield more growth than the good times. But only when we are reflective, prayerful, mindful as we make the journey. Without periodic taking stock of our journey, whether in the wilderness or not, life can just keep going on without much thought or growth.
So, some wilderness questions to ponder for your journey: What important relationships and friendships have I been putting off to some future time? What is God calling me to do with my life and with the resources God has given me? What in my life right now do I take for granted?
A businessman visiting the pier of a coastal village noticed a small boat with just one fisherman pulling up to the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. He complimented the fisherman on his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while,” the fisherman replied.
“Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”
“I have enough to support my family’s needs.”
The businessman then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.”
The business man scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats and eventually have a whole fleet of boats. You would cut out the middleman and sell directly to the processor, eventually owning your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding empire.”
The fisherman asked, “But how long will all this take?”
Harvard MBA replied, “Fifteen to twenty years.”
“But what then?” the fisherman asked.
The American laughed and said “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an initial public offering and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich; you would make millions.”
“Millions? The fisherman asked. “Then what?”
The businessman said, “Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with friends.”
What is most important to you? Where are you headed with the rest of your life? These are the questions wilderness journeys bring to mind.