Tag Archives: Dryness

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.

Leaning into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the claim from the heavens that Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted.

While we may see these as different events, they are all tied together in one long narrative by the gospel writer to show Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

The wilderness has a significant role in the story of scripture.

One day Moses was caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, and he led them through the wilderness, to the far side. It is there that he sees, out of the corner of his eye, a bush that was on fire but did not appear to be consumed, and Moses thought to himself, I need to step aside, take a detour from where I am headed, and see this amazing sight. And it is here that God spoke to Moses and changed the history of the people of God.

As the people of God made their way to safety from oppression and slavery, they ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be the people of God. The desert was a time of challenge and temptation, but also grace and revelation. It was through this time that the people of God learned what it meant to be the people of God, not only for them, but also for future generations as they passed on these stories.

After the showdown with the priests of Ba’al at the two altars, Elijah gets word that he is going to die, and he goes into the wilderness and sits down beneath a solitary tree and asks to die. For forty days and nights he passes through the wilderness until he reaches mount Horeb, or Sinai, and there he meets God and he is given a new mission from God.

And it is in the wilderness that Jesus is led immediately following this statement by God. Until now, Jesus doesn’t really do much, he doesn’t gather disciples, he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t do miracles. These forty days in the wilderness is Jesus’ preparation as he, perhaps, learns as well. After all, Jesus was fully God, but also fully human.

Just as Jesus’ baptism is an extension of the epiphany to the Magi, his time in the wilderness is an extension of his baptism, the preparation for his ministry.

Jesus fasted for forty days, was tempted by the tempter and resisted and the angels came and waited on him. Just when we think things will let up a bit he leaves the desert and goes home to Nazareth to learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves home and settles northeast by the Sea of Galilee in a village called Capernaum.

***

The temptation story also shows us what kind of redeemer, what type of king, what type of leader he will be. Even at his weakest moment, he will not embrace power, but will turn it down. He will let nothing stand between him and his mission. It is a mission which began in turmoil and will end in death, and ultimately a resurrection. Jesus does not exist for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. He will not turn stones into bread for him to eat, but later in the story he will multiply bread for the people to eat. He will not take power over everything for himself, but he will offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who follow him in righteousness.

The Gospel writer notes early on that he will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us (Mt 1:23), and this shows how Jesus is with us, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of identification. Jesus not only lived among us, but could identify with us. Neither Jesus’ heritage, nor his identity, nor his calling would keep him from the experience of  humanity, from the experience of life, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the joys and the pains.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, but without sin. (Heb. 4:15).

This is a transformative experience for Jesus, and one which will stay with him throughout his ministry. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus will face temptations of various sorts, including the temptation to cut and run when his arrest and death was imminent. But this time of preparation in the desert, this will help him to understand his mission and to what he is called.

***

As God’s people we too are led into wilderness experiences. Not necessarily a physical wilderness, but a spiritual wilderness. We may not be abstaining from food, our wilderness experiences often make us feel a hunger, a deep hunger, as though we are not being nourished as we ought. It is a time of loneliness, isolation, fear, longing, hunger.

The wilderness experience of the ancient people of God was not a result of rejection by God, but rather, because they were God’s people. Jesus’ wilderness experience is not a result of rejection by God, but rather an extension of being claimed by God.

So often we may think that our wilderness experiences may be a result of rejection by or a turning away by God but perhaps this may not always be the case. Perhaps it is a part of being God’s people, perhaps it is a time to help us learn what it means to be God’s people, and perhaps these wilderness experiences help us understand what it means to be claimed by God.

But the best part about this is that we do not enter into these wilderness experiences alone, Jesus joins us in these wilderness experiences. Jesus joins us in the solitude, in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst. Jesus joins us in the struggle and striving with God. Before Jesus leaves the people after his resurrection he promises to them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). and this is a promise that holds true today, a promise that holds true for you and for me. That even in these barren and lonely and hard times, we do not trod them alone, but we trod them with Jesus, who went through these experiences himself while on earth.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, the wilderness is a part of life with God, a part of struggling and striving with God. In the wilderness lies growth, learning, an epiphany even, if we live into the wilderness experiences into which we may be led. But we do not enter into the wilderness alone. Many times we have other members of the body of Christ who can journey with us if we allow it.  But even more, we have Jesus who has walked in our shoes, who has lived a life like ours, who has experienced every piece of human life and can sympathize with us.

 

Where have I been?

I have a confession to make: My houseplants are dead. All of them. Three years ago I would shutter at the thought. I spent much time and energy watering them, feeding them, pruning them, placing them in and out of sun as needed. I loved them. But here we are. I am now the owner of several dead, though once magnificent houseplants. And these are hearty houseplants too!

So please take your collective sigh of relief that I am not a parent.

I figure if I can’t properly care for houseplants I would be in trouble with children.

Anyway. My houseplants are dead. My blog is dusty. My flat is a mess. I’m currently sick…again. This pretty much sums things up as of late.

So where have I been? I’ve been here, but unable to write much worth posting. My off-line life has been full. There are major transitions coming down the pike with my ministry, and these require both time and emotional energy. The past few months, I have had little of the former, and almost none of the latter.

Beginning in Lent, I have been somewhat hit or miss here, which is not the way that I like to be. I typically have thought of myself as dependable. For me, writing is both freeing and taxing. It is a requirement for me to live and experience life, but it is work, work that requires a great deal of mental and emotional energy, which I have been lacking as of late.

My hope is that soon I will be able to offer to you something rich, deep, and meaningful. So thanks, readers, for hanging with me through these thin times. If you’re of the praying type, say a prayer for me too. God knows I need them.

Pulling Back the Cobwebs

Cobwebs

By Diane Brennan on Flickr

Well, dear readers, I have been absent for a while — a long while — without any explanation. Over a month.   Perhaps you may have thought that I have abandoned writing, or abandoned my blog. Neither of these are quite accurate. I have abandoned neither writing nor this blog, I have not been able to write anything which has been fit to publish. In fact, I have not been able to finish much writing at all. It has turned into a bit of a Lenten fast, though that was not originally intended.

I had grand plans throughout Lent, plans of sharing with you my journey through the somber season of Lent, but something happened. I lost, for a bit, the taste of sweetness on my tongue which I attempt to share with you.

The words would not come, the sentences would not form, and all that appeared was a collection of black symbols on a white page which were pleasing to neither the mind nor the soul. So I waited.

This has been the second time we have shared together on thealreadynotyet.com a time of waiting. A time in which words do not come, and waiting is necessary.

On some level I feel guilty about this. I feel undisciplined, I feel as though I am not taking it seriously, or as though I cannot just “buckle down and do it” as my parents used to say as I was trying to avoid doing homework as a child. I feel as though my waiting as been a passive wait rather than an expectant wait.

On another level, however, guilt, in this instance, offers little benefit for moving forward.

So I move on. What has not been, has not been. What will be, will be.

So, dear readers, I’m pulling back the cobwebs, and I’m back. I hope that you will continue to journey with me.

“…With Sighs Too Deep for Words”

prayer..

By Aronki (Dae Ho Lee) on Flickr

I had an out-of-town meeting yesterday, about an hour away.  On my way to this meeting, the distance provided me with one full hour of unstructured alone time.  I was not reading, I was not making telephone calls, I was not having people stop by my office, and I was not writing.

I had an hour of uninterrupted time to spend some time praying.  I had a lot on my mind, after all.  I was worried about a family in our church that just had their power shut off, I was wondering where the new leaders in our church would arise from, I was wondering if we would have enough money to be able to finish the year, I was concerned that violence continues to cast a dark cloud over our neighborhood.  I felt a weighty burden on my shoulders.  Often times, the only thing that I am able to do is to pray.

The words would not come out.  I could not even think the words that I wanted to say.  I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew the type of things that I wanted to express, but I could not.  In my desperation I let out a big sigh.

It was then that I remembered a verse from the Letter to the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, NRSV).

I wondered, perhaps, if this is the experience to which this passage refers.  There are times in which we feel an oppressive weight upon our shoulders, when our hearts are burdened.  When we find it difficult to focus or concentrate, or even make words.  There are always times in which we feel as though we are barely treading water and as though our pockets are filled with stones.  These are times in which praying can be difficult.

How ironic that there are some very difficult times, times in which we most need to pray, that it is difficult to do so. This is particularly difficult for me, as words are the way in which I make my living and the way in which I live out my calling.  I interpret the words of scripture, and I use words to explain scripture and why it matters to those in my congregation.  I use words to offer up common prayers with and on behalf of my congregation.  I use words to comfort those who are sick, I use words to celebrate the sacraments, I use words to help those entrusted to my care to try to make sense of God, their lives, and how God impacts their lives.  Words are what I do.

There are, however, times in which words are never enough.  When people grieve, sometimes the ministry of being is more important than the ministry of words.  Words are useful only insofar as they communicate something which needs to be communicated.  There is something, though, of the human condition which is ineffable, which cannot be expressed within the limits of language. Sometimes there is something so beautiful and wonderful that words cannot do it justice; other times there is so much burden and that words cannot express the depths of despair.

At these times, perhaps, it is best simply to remain silent knowing what is on one’s heart and mind.  Perhaps, at these times, when words cannot suffice, words need not be necessary because presence with another person and/or presence with God is enough.  When something limited like language cannot express what we need to express, there is a communication which is far deeper than words.

Striving With God

Drought between Spain and Portugal

Via the Italian voice on Flickr

It has been some time since we have received any amount of actual rainfall, and when added to the unseasonably hot temperatures, this creates a situation in which plants struggle to survive and farmers lose significant portions of their crops.  The health department has been recommending that people stay inside air conditioning and not exert oneself too much while outside.  Our whole area has been under an Excessive Heat Warning for much of the week.

Things have largely been inconvenient for my wife and I.  We have a window air conditioner in our flat which keeps our living space cool and we have fans to circulate the cool air.  I can get on an air conditioned bus to travel around the city; I can turn on the faucet and obtain water with which to drink, bathe, and cook.

Despite the fact that we are on the verge of an official drought, I do not have to feel the immediate effects of the extreme dryness, I have conveniences which can insulate me from them a bit.  However, it remains clear that the ground is dry, that plants are dying, and crops are not able to survive the heat and lack of rainfall.  When I pay attention, I must admit that despite our abilities and accomplishments we remain wholly dependent upon God’s provision.

This is a lesson that I see continually in scripture: the Israelites wander through the desert and are reliant upon God for food and water; Jesus spends forty days in the desert and is reliant on God for care and eventually for nourishment; Elijah fled to the desert and was fed by angels.  Perhaps there is a lesson in the times that rain does not come, not so much a punishment but something from which we can learn.  As humans, we are limited.  We can fly through the air, send rockets into space, send submarines deep into the ocean.  We can cool air in buildings, and pump water straight to one’s home even when there has not been any precipitation.

The heat and dryness is something that we cannot change.  We can do things to cope with the heat, we can try to irrigate and water plants the best that we are able, but there are effects that we simply cannot change or undo.  Despite all of our accomplishments, despite all of the things that we can do, humans are still not sovereign over our world and humans are not ultimately in control.  This hot and dry season has been a lesson for me in the importance and centrality of the providence of God.

As much as I may want to, I cannot bring rain.  So I continue to pray that God will bring rain and pray that God will provide relief, I continue to pray that God will open up the heavens which are shut up and heal and restore the land.  I wonder, at times, if this is an example of what was meant when the people of God were named Israel: those who strive with God.  I do not understand why farmers have to lose their crops, I do not understand why people have to get sick and some even die from the current weather conditions.   It is in this hot and dry season that I feel particular kinship with our ancestors in the faith who lived and strove with God in the midst of the desert praying for the same relief that I, and many of us, now pray for.  Despite all of the things that change in the world, there remain constants: humans are not in control, and we continue to strive with God.

On Being Dried Up

stairs under a fall sky

From Jim VanMaastricht on Flickr (Used with Permission)

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you.
do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass… (Psalm 102:1-4a)

For the past month or so, I have felt dried up.  I have felt like grass that has been scorched by the hot summer sun and has not been given the nourishing water which can rejuvenate it back to life.

My writing has not only been impacted here on this blog, but my other writing as well: my sermons, my church newsletters, even my written correspondence has been impacted.  I sit in front of a computer with a blank page and a blinking cursor, and instead of creating, I sit.  I sit at my desk with a blank piece of paper before me, which would usually be received with gratitude for the empty space which I could fill.  However, now I sit at it with dread, because the emptiness of that space reflects back to me the emptiness that I experience.

Preparing sermons, which typically brings me joy and fulfillment is now only met with distress as Sunday approaches closer and closer and my sermon remains unwritten on Friday, and Saturday.  My church newsletter still sits on my computer, 4 weeks late, partially finished with paragraphs that are disjointed and do not flow, and do not even contain a coherent message.

Written language, which usually serves as a spillway for when my thoughts burst through the dam, now seems to drain the remaining water in the reservoir.

I appreciate the Psalms, particularly the psalms of lament, because when I am in a situation such as this, when I cannot find words with which to express myself, I have words that have been given to me.

Thanks be to God.  Even through these dry times.